Cool, a new memory erasing drug!

At least that’s what you’d think if you read the health news headlines plastered over the ‘net over the past few days about propranolol’s magical memory erasing abilities:

  • Blood Pressure Drug May Erase Fearful Memories – WebMD
  • Common drug eases memories of fear – Boston Globe
  • Could a blood pressure drug dim bad memories? – Scientific American

How could so many respectable publications get the basic facts of this research so wrong? How wrong? Well, first of all, you’d think the new study studied memory. But you’d be wrong, of course. What the research actually looked at was the startle response and an artificial fear connection made to a picture:

When those in the placebo group were given a series of electric shocks, their fear of the spider also returned, while those in the propranolol group continued to react calmly to the spider picture, suggesting that the association may have been permanently erased, or at least negated to such a point that it has no effect.

What did the propranolol block? A laboratory-created fear association, which isn’t quite the same thing as an actual real, vivid memory. Just so we’re clear here — pictures do not equal trauma, and a startle response to a fearful stimuli does not equal a “memory.”

New Scientist did the best job of putting the new research into some context, even going so far as to get the headline mostly right — “‘Anti-phobia pill’ breaks link between memory and fear.” That’s a pretty good summary of the research, but still uses the word “memory” when it’s not quite clear that’s what the researchers tapped into here. But I won’t split hairs.

We noted these same sorts of problems a year and a half ago when we discussed a previous study conducted on this drug. The media went ga-ga over that study as well, and made the exact same claims — that a common hypertension drug can erase bad memories. Apparently a year and a half later, health journalism hasn’t gotten any better.

Do the “memories” treated by the drug propranolol stay away forever? Who knows, as the current study only looked at subjects for 3 days:

However, Chris Brewin, a memory expert at University College London, UK, says the findings are interesting, but cautions that Kindt’s group only tested the volunteers over the course of three days.

“The fear might come back if they tested them several weeks later,” he says.

In other words, this is a nice study, building upon previous research. The drug propranolol’s effects don’t magically “erase” bad memories. They do, however, prevent a common physiological startle response in our bodies to a phobic stimuli. Are the results long-lasting in lieu of taking the medication for life? We still don’t know. Hopefully future research will answer some of these additional questions.

Read the full article: ‘Anti-phobia pill’ breaks link between memory and fear.



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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 17 Feb 2009
    Published on All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2009). Does Propranolol Erase Memories? Still No. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 21, 2015, from


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