National Geographic News
Memories of wailing sirens, mangled bodies, and smoldering debris in the wake of this month's terrorist attacks in London and Egypt will produce widespread distress in thousands of people.
Can a common drug snuff out the debilitating emotions these memories trigger?
Researchers say the beta-blocker propranolol, commonly prescribed to treat high blood pressure and heart problems, disrupts the way the brain stores memories.
If taken at the right time, the drug may benefit people who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University.
"We're not erasing memories," he said. "But we think it will reduce the emotional component of the memory."
The science journal Nature reported Wednesday that LeDoux and colleagues are conducting a clinical trial of propranolol in PTSD patients.
Memories of tragic events, such as terrorist attacks, car wrecks, and rape, cause sufferers of PTSD to experience debilitating emotionsranging from numbness and detachment to extreme anxiety, irritability, and violence.
PTSD can lead to depression, substance abuse, and other anxiety disorders.
If the beta-blockers work as LeDoux and colleagues suggest, the drugs would be a welcome alternative treatment for PTSD, said Barbara Rothbaum, a psychologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.
"We hope something like this could work," she said.
But Rothbaum added that the preliminary data on propranolol gathered by another research group suggest the drug is only marginally promising as a PTSD treatment.
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