Heartbreak can feel devastating, especially right after a breakup. Usually the pain eases with time, but sometimes the memory can continue to grip a person’s mind long after and make it difficult to get on with everyday life.
But an experimental pill could help blunt the strong emotions associated with a traumatic memory.
Beyond breakups, patients with PTSD or addiction could also benefit from the same drug, but romantic betrayals are one of the most common reasons people seek help. For severe cases, symptoms can mirror those in PTSD. That’s why it’s the focus of a new research by Alain Brunet, associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University.
The treatment is based on a theory called memory reconsolidation: every time a person recalls a memory, it becomes susceptible to change. Memory is dynamic, and just thinking about a memory makes it malleable, like warming up a piece of clay in your hands. If a person changes its shape, it will re-solidify that way.
Participants in the trial started out by thinking through their traumatic experience with a trained psychologist who helps them write down a detailed first-person account of events.
Over the next five weeks, the participants come back for weekly supervised sessions in which they read their story out loud to reactivate the memory. But first, they take a blood pressure pill containing a beta-blocker called propranolol an hour before their session.
Propranolol is clinically used to treat chest pain, high blood pressure, heart rhythm disorders, and anxiety. That helps ease some of the physical stress responses to the memory while it is being actively recalled. Propranolol is also thought to counter the effects of adrenaline and noradrenaline, the neurotransmitters behind the fight-or-flight response that increase heart rate, which may enhance the storage of fearful memories. These actions may help dull some of the intense emotional reactions to the traumatic memory.
The study showed that while the details of the memory remain intact, but the pain and obsession diminish. The same treatment previously tested on PTSD patients found that 70 percent of participants no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD.
Critics are quick to point to the slippery slope that treatments like this may represent. Curating our memories has many possibilities for abuse or overuse, and there may be unintended consequences for other memories that come up in the broad window of time where the drug is active. But certain traumas are so debilitating to mental health and daily functioning that measures like this could become a final resort.
Memories and emotions are critical to learning, but in extreme cases they can consume people’s lives. Treatment with propranolol doesn’t erase those memories or feelings, but it makes them less intense. Lifting some of that burden could allow people move on when nothing else seems to help.