Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Can chemistry help you to forget?

Note: these articles have been published in InfoChem, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel (Jim Carrey) is very hurt when his girlfriend, Clementine leaves him [1]. But he is astonished and depressed when he to learn that she actually underwent medical treatment on her brain to remove memories of him! This film is definitely in the science fiction genre. For example the medical apparatus used to remove the memories looks like it might have come straight from a fantasy comic strip [1]. Putting the weird machine aside is there any modern scientific basis for the concept of the film; is it possible to remove troublesome memories using science and technology?

A lot of research is currently taking place to treat people with post traumatic stress disorder, phobias and even addictions [2]. Soldiers coming back from wars and car crash victims can take years, sometimes decades, to recover from ordeals they have experienced. Some never make a full recovery.

Recent research claims that the beta blocker blood pressure drug, Propranolol, modifies the way memories are retrieved and re-stored in the brain providing a way in which problem memories, and our reaction to them, may be tackled. A very simplistic explanation is that 'remembering' is at least a two step process. Firstly a stimulus causes the memories to be replayed (with much of the discomfort associated with the original trauma) and then these memories are restored back in the memory. In this way going over memories again and again effectively enhances the very memories you might wish to forget.

Taking Propranolol, while being stimulated to remember certain memories, apparently reduces the effectiveness of the second part of this process. In other words the memory cells associated with the traumatic memories behave normally (you 'remember') but the drug stops the same memories from being put back (you don't keep remembering). Propranolol probably temporarily effects neurone communication between memory cells that facilitate the memory restorage.

The researchers claim that the memory cells are not damaged by the drug. Propranolol seems to target the cells in the part of the brain called the Amygdala often associated with emotional memories. The treatment may not mean you actually forget the trauma but that you 'forget' the emotional response that ultimately causes so much pain and suffering. With a skilful combination of drugs and special mental exercises (to select the correct parts of the memory to be modified) the researchers claim that it may be possible to tackle long term reactions to trauma.

References and Links
[1] Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Focus Features, 2004
[2] Roadblock on memory Lane, Katrina Megget, Chemistry World, July 2010, p. 46 50


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