The Neuroethics of Unintentional Memory-Modification

By Matthew L Baum

At least since the publication of the President’s Commission on Bioethics’ report in 2003, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness”, there has been an ongoing debate about the ethics of using drugs to modify emotional memories.  Rather than focus on the Hollywood-type total memory erasure featured in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, many ground the debate in the molecular neuroscience of memory reconsolidation (for an excellent overview, see here). In the process of memory reconsolidation, a newly reactivated memory triggers certain molecular events that are necessary for it to return to long-term storage; during these events, the memory is temporarily susceptible to disruption by certain drugs like the beta-blocker, propranolol. Further work with people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) suggests that using propranolol in this way doesn’t erase a memory, but may blunt the reconsolidation of the memory’s negative emotional content. In the ethical discussion, most agree that 1) it should usually be acceptable to use drugs to modify memories in cases of PTSD where the emotional content of memories becomes debilitating, but 2) the use of memory modifying drugs is usually morally problematic when the target is everyday unpleasant memories, disappointments, and rejections.

Existing debate has focused on intentional memory modification. But what about those who modify memories in these problematic ways unintentionally? Conspicuously under-discussed is the ethics of continuing to use drugs with potential memory-modifying properties for the treatment of other medical conditions. Propranolol, for example, is on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Formulary for treatment of patients with severe liver disease (liver cirrhosis). This (not-small) population of people, in theory, risks unintentionally (and pre-emptively) modifying memories every day!

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