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A drug to cope with bad memories

February 18, 2009 |  2:27 pm

Anxiety1A drug used to treat blood pressure appears to alleviate the anxiety associated with fearful memories, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The drug is propranolol, a beta blocker used to treat high blood pressure. Previous research has shown that propranolol can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder feel less anxious. In the new study, researchers from the University of Amsterdam demonstrated that the drug works even better than exposure therapy to dampen anxiety linked to fearful memories. In exposure therapy, people repeatedly recall a traumatic event or memory in a safe environment until they learn to overcome the fear triggered by the memory.

In the new study, researchers showed healthy volunteers pictures of spiders. One of the images was followed by an electrical shock. Eventually, the research subjects became anxious just by seeing the spider. The next day, the researchers tested the emotional response triggered by the image, but they gave half of the group propranolol. On the third day, both groups remembered the association between the spider and the shock but those who received the drug had a lower emotional response to the image. Even after exposure therapy, the people who did not receive the drug could regain their fearful response. But those who received the drug had a permanently weakened memory.

Researchers believe the medication may block the storage of the emotional component of memories. Further studies are now being conducted to find out how to best deliver the medication in a therapeutic manner.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times