Why we need memory-altering drugsS

Scientists have been tinkering with memory-altering drugs for years, discovering substances that can make you forget that you crave cocaine, and change the emotional weight of traumatic memories as you recall them. But the prospect of swallowing a pill that erases your past has troubling implications. Many ethicists say we simply shouldn't develop these substances at all.

Now neuroethicist and Brooklyn Law School professor Adam Kolber says the "hand-wringing" over memory-altering drugs has to stop. We need to develop these drugs and make them available as soon as possible, without overly burdensome legal restrictions on them. Here's why.

Kolber begins an essay in today's issue of Nature with an assertion that sounds like it could be straight from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where consumer-grade memory-erasing treatments are commercially available:

The fears about pharmaceutical memory manipulation are overblown. Thoughtful regulation may some day be appropriate, but excessive hand-wringing now over the ethics of tampering with memory could stall research into preventing post-traumatic stress in millions of people. Delay could also hinder people who are already debilitated by harrowing memories from being offered the best hope yet of reclaiming their lives.

He goes on to acknowledge that there are good reasons to be concerned about memory-erasing drugs. Ethicists have pointed out that people's identities may be changed, and soliders might feel less concern about killing if they knew they could take a drug and forget it afterwards. Kolber also cites a recent case where an anesthesiologist gave a woman a memory-erasing sedative to prevent her from remembering the tactless way she received her cancer diagnosis over an intercom during a biopsy procedure.

Still, he says, the arguments against developing the drugs are "not persuasive" for two reasons. First, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that memory-dampening drugs can help people recover from trauma by easing the pain of their memories. Many people feel they have "lost themselves" to trauma, so losing those memories might actually make their identities whole again. And second, there are already-existing laws on the books that would make it illegal to administer these drugs without consent.

We talked to Kolber to find out how he imagines these drugs would be used and regulated in the future.

He told io9 that his main concern is preventing the prohibition of these drugs because "many of the most egregious uses of such drugs are already prohibited by existing law." In other words, erasing the memories of your victims - whether those are rape victims or embezzlement victims - is already illegal. But in cases where we're not talking about criminal uses of the drugs, how would they be administered? How would a doctor decide whether a memory could be erased or needed to be preserved for the good of others — say, for testimony in a trial?

Kolber wrote via email:

I imagine that, in the first instance, doctors would decide when a patient is a good candidate for a memory-dampening drug. But it is difficult to say how all of this would work until we know precisely what aspects of memory are affected by a drug and how it may affect third-parties. Some drugs, like certain radiation treatments, can have effects on third parties, and we generally permit physicians to explain the dangers to patients. I think it is too early to say, though, whether we would need more aggressive oversight of prescriptions for memory-dampening drugs.

And then there's the question of how we might regulate what counts as a memory that's a candidate for erasure. Would we leave this in the hands of doctors and patients to decide, or create a legal framework to regulate it?

Kolbert explained:

I think we will all have different opinions about precisely when memory dampening is appropriate. But I think it's important that people have some freedom to decide, provided they are well-informed about the pros and cons of their decisions. That doesn't mean there should be no restrictions. But we shouldn't legislate one narrow view about the propriety of memory manipulation . . .

Memory-dampening drugs could be used as performance enhancers. Ordinarily, we have very little control over our memories, and memory-dampening drugs could give us a power that we might not otherwise have. As with all kinds of enhancement, though, we should focus on the effects of the enhancement in particular contexts. The mere fact that a substance enhances performance is ethically neutral.

Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues did a study of people's willingness to use memory-dampening drugs. Subjects were asked their opinions in hypothetical scenarios. She found that people were hesitant to use them. If that's true, risks of overuse may be lower with memory-dampening drugs than some others.

Kolber describes memories that we might to erase as traumatic and having "no redeeming value." In other words, these are memories are horrific, and whose loss won't harm others (as they might if the person needed to remember them to testify in a trial). He mentions that the memories of rescue workers in a massive disaster might qualify as this type of memory, and clarified:

I didn't mean that that the memories of rescue workers never have redeeming value. I meant that they may have no redeeming value. Suppose, for example, that a rescue worker is haunted by traumatic memories. He has already provided experts and family members with as much information as possible and now he would like to be rid of those memories. I don't think people should suffer for the sake of suffering.

It seems that memory manipulation could be beneficial after all. However, the closer we get to making these drugs commercially available, the more we need to come up with solutions to the question of who gets to decide when the drugs are administered, and what counts as consent to having your memories erased. Will we start to see a pharmaceutical clause in every non-disclosure agreement?

You can read Kolber's commentary in Nature.

Image by Dmitriy Shironosov via Shutterstock