It may be possible to ‘alter’ memories of heartbreak so they hurt less, research finds

It’s now possible to alter memories of severe heartbreak to lessen the emotional pain associated with them, according to research by a McGill University team.

“It does, a little bit, sound like science fiction, but it no longer is,” Alain Brunet, a professor of psychiatry at McGill’s Douglas Research Centre, told The Current’s interim host Laura Lynch.

Brunet’s most recent study on the concept worked with 60 participants who had experienced severe heartbreak — severe enough to trigger a psychiatric condition, with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The findings were presented at a conference for the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies in November.

“I got interested in heartbreak because it’s the number one reason why people consult a psychotherapist,” said Brunet. “It’s also the stuff that Greek tragedies are made of, and it’s something really at the core of the human experience.”

Alain Brunet is a professor of psychiatry at McGill University’s Douglas Research Centre. (Submitted by Alain Brunet)

Brunet’s team asked participants to write an account of their “romantic betrayal event,” and then gave them the beta blocker drug propranolol, which is commonly used to treat high blood pressure. 

Recalling the painful memory while under the influence of propranolol, the team found, reduced the strength of the emotions associated with the memory. 

The effect has to do with how memories are stored and recovered in the brain, Brunet explained — a process known as “reconsolidation” of memory.

“When you recall the memory, it needs to be saved again to long-term memory storage,” he said. During that process of recollection, people also get in touch with the original emotion they felt — “and that emotion is also a memory.”

What researchers in this field now understand, Brunet said, is that it’s possible to intervene as the memory is saved back to long-term storage in the brain.

That’s where propranolol comes in. 

“Propranolol has this property of interfering with the re-recording of parts of the memory and particularly the emotional component,” he said.

In the romantic betrayal study, the researchers asked participants to fill out a questionnaire each week to measure the severity of the symptoms. After four to six weeks, participants were able to read their own story of betrayal with far less emotional response.

“They feel like it could be a page that’s been taken from a novel,” he said.

Brunet’s team has seen similar results in studies using propranolol with people experiencing different kinds of painful emotional memories and traumatic stress, including a study with survivors of the 2015 Paris terror attacks.

He said this form of treatment, known as reconsolidation therapy, can replace other PTSD treatments “that would take months to years to obtain good results.”

“It’s really a big step forward from the perspective of mental health,” he said.

The upside to painful memories

There are, however, some ethical quandaries when it comes to altering our feelings about our memories, according to Judy Illes, the director of Neuroethics Canada, a research group based out of the University of British Columbia.

Illes said she “absolutely” supports the kind of work Brunet is doing in a clinical setting, to alleviate the suffering from mental health disorders that have a serious impact on people’s quality of life. 

But, she said, there’s a slippery slope to be aware of with this form of treatment, especially if it becomes used in other contexts, outside of a clinical setting.

Judy Illes is the director of Neuroethics Canada, a research institute at the University of British Columbia. (Submitted by Judy Illes)

“If we dampen our memories of our bad experiences, we may actually dampen our potential for learning from them and [for] good behaviour going forward,” she said. 

Illes used the example of people fighting in wars, who may have many traumatic memories of fighting. 

“We might be able to train war fighters to be less cautious about their actions, either on the ground or even taking risks as they’re flying airplanes or other manoeuvres, because the dampening of those memories and experiences has taken place,” she said.

From an ethical standpoint, said Illes, that could have grave consequences. “Those [traumatic] memories are what allow us to really check what we do from a moral point of view and ensure that those final decisions, to the extent possible, are the right ones,” she said. 

Erasing memories raises ethical questions

Beyond the science of altering memories, Brunet said that some studies have looked into going one step further: deleting memories altogether.

Popular culture, including movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, have long explored the possibilities and consequences of such a practice.

Now researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Toronto have found that it’s possible to eliminate memories associated with fear in mice.

Actors Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in 2003 on the set of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie that dealt with the concept of erasing painful memories of love. (Adam Rountree/Getty Images)

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this line of research was eventually successful [with humans], maybe 10 or 20 years down the line,” said Brunet.

“But that raises more important ethical questions if you can erase the memory altogether, because that’s not what people want.”

Brunet stressed that participants in his research aren’t losing memories; they’re simply having less painful responses to them. 

“I’ve been using this treatment since 2004 now, and I haven’t had one single patient come back to me and say, ‘Dr. Brunet, you have really robbed me of some of my most important memories and I don’t feel myself anymore,'” he said.


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Cameron Perrier and Willow Smith.

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