Science Scope

A pain-erasing pill is no longer the stuff of movies

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Want to erase a bad memory? There's a pill for that.

"Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life," wrote Oscar Wilde, and that seems to have happened with an experiment that reduced people's ability to recall bad memories.

Just like in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the drug metyrapone prevented the brain from recording the negative emotions that come with painful memories in a study at the University of Montreal.

In the experiment, 33 men learned a story that contained both neutral and negative aspects. Three days later, they were divided into three groups with one group taking one dose of metryapone, another group taking a double dose and the last group taking a placebo.

The subjects were then asked to remember the story, and four days later, when the medicine had left their bodies, the researchers tested their memory recall.

Lead author and University of Montreal doctoral student Marie-France Marin said,

“We found that the men in the group who received two doses of metyrapone were impaired when retrieving the negative events of the story, while they showed no impairment recalling the neutral parts of the story,” Marin said.

They believe metyrapone works by depressing the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone involved in memory recall, in the brain. By lowering the amount of cortisol when a negative event is recalled, metyrapone appears to permanently impair the person's ability to remember its painful aspects.

Aside from being the dream pill for anyone who has ever suffered heartbreak, metyrapone has the potential to help people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Our findings may help people deal with traumatic events by offering them the opportunity to ‘write-over’ the emotional part of their memories during therapy,” Marin said. However, the promise of metyrapone is only in the very early stages of testing.

One challenge is that the drug -- normally used to diagnose adrenal insufficiency -- is no longer commercially available. But it may spur research with other drugs that decrease cortisol levels.

[via Popular Science]

photo: Maggie Smith

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure