Imagine a drug that can “wipe away single, specific memories while leaving other memories intact.” That would be quite a drug, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, it’s not true. What both LiveScience and the Telegraph claim the researchers found isn’t actually what they found (or even claimed to have found).
What the small study (N = 19) found was that a single dose of this beta-blocker helps reduce physiological responses in the 10 subjects it was administered to. What physiological responses? Well, heart rate was one of three responses measured, as well as forehead muscles (the left corrugator) and skin conductance. These latter two measures commonly are used to help measure tension or stress in a person.
The single dose of propranolol was given a week before the final measurements were conducted, during a preparation session in which the subjects described their traumatic event.
Then a week later, another session was conducted where the subjects engaged in script-driven imagery of their traumatic event while the measurements were taken.
Note that the researchers did not employ any psychological measurements — only physiological. The measures they did use are meaningless because they are normal indications for the drug’s use — we would expect the drug to affect these measures. One of those measurements is specifically related to the purpose of the beta-blocker (heart rate), and the other two are also used an indication for this drug (anxiety) outside of the U.S.
It should also be noted that the half life of propranolol is 3-6 hours (12 hours with the sustained release version) and is out of one’s system within 48 hours. Which doesn’t explain anything, but is interesting to note that a drug that is no longer in one’s system is purported to be related to reduced stress.
Since no psychological measures were used, we don’t actually know whether the people in the study felt any better or experienced less traumatic memories of the event with the drug or not. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the researchers didn’t use any psychological measures — it might answer the question in the negative.
The study specifically did not find a drug that “banishes bad memories.” It also didn’t find anything that can “wipe away single, specific memories while leaving other memories intact.” It also did not measure anything related to memory. The researchers are not “working on an amnesia drug that blocks or deletes bad memories” (the drug has been around for some time and is neither new nor novel).
It’s not surprising to us that some news organizations work hard to promote tiny studies with factually inaccurate headlines and articles to bring on more website visitors and sell newspapers. At the expense of the truth.