New research suggests that a class of drugs called beta-blockers can alleviate the anxiety associated with scary memories while leaving the memories intact. While beta blockers are commonly used to treat heart conditions, some musicians and public performers have used the drugs "off-label" to help overcome stagefright. Last year, McGill University neurobiologists reported that beta-blockers seemed to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now, University of Amsterdam psychologist Merel Kindt and colleagues published a paper in Nature Neuroscience that confirms the PTSD clinical study. From Science News:
Kindt and her colleagues showed subjects a photograph of a spider, which was accompanied by an electric shock, conditioning the participants to have a fearful memory of the image. Later, some participants were given a beta-blocker drug, propranolol, and others were given a placebo before being exposed to the image again. The beta-blocker group’s fear response was greatly reduced or even eliminated when the subjects were shown the spider photograph 24 hours after taking the drugs. “The people did not forget seeing the photograph of the spider,” Kindt says. ”But the fear associated with the image was erased.”
The researchers think beta-blockers work by changing the way the frightening memories are stored. Each time a memory is recalled it changes a little, and the new version is recorded in the long-term memory stash via brain chemical fluctuations in a process called reconsolidation. The beta-blockers could interfere with the brain chemicals, blocking reconsolidation of the emotional component of the memory, but leaving the rest of the memory intact, the scientists suggest.