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The Ethics of Altering Memory

The question of whether it’s possible to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder is one thing; the question of whether we should is quite another.

By Anita Slomski // Winter 2007
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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Alex Nabaum

James McGaugh, a neurobiologist at the University of California at Irvine, has published more than 500 scientific papers on the neurobiology of memory and learning, and when he was invited to give a presentation to the President’s Council on Bioethics, he expected council members to applaud his evidence that the beta-blocker propranolol might prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Instead, I became the poster child of evil,” McGaugh says.

The council’s 2003 report Beyond Therapy comes down hard against “rewriting” memories pharmacologically. “Would dulling our memory of terrible things make us too comfortable with the world, unmoved by suffering, wrongdoing or cruelty?” the report asks. And doesn’t robbing individuals of their traumatic memories deny them the opportunity to develop their “ultimate character” and “true identity”?

But some people don’t want that opportunity, says Adam Kolber, a law professor at the University of San Diego who challenged the ethics council’s views in a recent law review article. Kolber points out the example of baggage handlers who developed PTSD symptoms after they had to collect body parts following a plane crash in San Diego in 1978. “Some traumatic memories don’t offer anything redeeming,” he says.

Rebecca Dresser, a council member, and professor of law and ethics and medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, says she has no problem with providing a drug to people who are really suffering. “But in giving a drug to everyone who has trauma, we are cutting off those who can get through an awful experience on their own,” Dresser says. Those people might be able to use it productively, she suggests: “Think of all the meaningful literature that came out of the Holocaust.”

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Reversal of Misfortune

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Promising yet far from proven, this approach to treating post-traumatic stress disorder neutralizes a memory just before it comes back to haunt you.

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