New Drug Reduces Negative Memory

Genome-based identification of drugs (Image: University of Basel)

Genome-based identification of drugs (Image: University of Basel)

Through analysis of the human genome, Basle scientists have identified molecules and compounds that are related to human memory. In a subsequent pharmacological study with one of the identified compounds, the scientists found a drug-induced reduction of aversive memory. This could have implications for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by intrusive traumatic memories. The findings have been published in the latest edition of the magazine PNAS.

In the last decade, the human genome project has led to an unprecedented rate of discovery of genes related to humane disease. However, so far it has not been clear to what extent this knowledge can be used for the identification of new drugs, especially in the field of neuropsychiatric disorders. The research groups of Prof. Andreas Papassotiropoulos and Prof. Dominique de Quervain of the Psychiatric University Clinics, the Department of Psychology and the Biozentrum of the University of Basel performed a multinational collaborative study, in order to analyze the genetic basis of emotionally aversive memory – a trait central to anxiety disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder. In a gene-set analysis the scientists identified 20 potential drug target genes that are involved in the process of remembering negative events.

Known Antihistamine shows Effect
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study and based on the results of the genetic analysis, the scientists examined a compound that interacts with one of the previously identified gene products. Surprisingly, the said compound is a known antihistamine. A single dose of the drug led to significant reduction of memory recall of previously seen aversive pictures; however, it did not affect memory of neutral or positive pictures. These findings could have implications for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

With this study, the scientists were for the first time able to demonstrate that human genome information can be used to identify substances that can modulate memory. “The rapid development of innovative methods for genetic analysis has made this new and promising approach possible”, says Papassotiropoulos. The scientists are now planning subsequent studies: “In a further step, we will try to identify and develop memory enhancing drugs”, explains de Quervain. The scientists hope to provide new input for the development of urgently needed improved drugs for the treatment of neuropsychiatric diseases.

Company for clinical Applications
In order to bring their findings to clinical application, de Quervain and Papassotiropulos founded the company GeneGuide Ltd. this year. The company has specialized in the human genome-based research approach and the discovery of new drugs for neuropsychiatric diseases. This novel approach has been met with great interest by the pharmaceutical industry, since so far the development of improved neuropsychiatric drugs has been rather disappointing.

Source: University of Basel


A. Papassotiropoulos, et. al. (2013). Human genome-guided identification of memory-modulating drugs. PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1314478110

  • Lex

    Wow, these studies are interesting
    but I do have some questions. For one, if in the future this “negative memory”
    removing drug becomes available to actually use, what are the possible side
    effects on the human brain? To my understanding these drugs erases all of the
    bad memories of a particular event, but say a person suffers post- traumatic
    stress disorder, does the drug for sure just erase that negative memory or is
    it possible that it erases other related memories as well? For example, say a
    person was in a car accident. Since the person is suffering from post-traumatic
    stress disorder, they take this new drug and never recall the episodic memory. Will
    the drug affect semantic memory of what they learned from the accident, such as
    “because I was in a bad car accident I will never forget to wear a seat belt?”
    Or will it just erase memories like the drug is intended for?

  • Bri

    These are interesting studies and conclusions from the Human Genome Project. I have a few questions on how this new drug will effectively work. Will the drug be able to differentiate between implicit and explicit memories when helping erase traumatic memories? Or since implicit memories are not consciously recollected anyways would it not affect them? Also, what is the time range that this drug will work? Will it have the same amount of effect on long and short term memories? Will this drug actually cause the memory to cease to exist or will it only cause a tip-of-the-tongue experience whenever a person tries to recall the memory?

  • Hi Bri and Lex. These are all really great questions and your thinking processes/concerns are accurate. Right now most of the questions you ask are unknown. These types of drugs are very early in development and many of the questions that you ask are excellent ones that should be posed by scientists in future studies. One could build an entire career in these areas alone. You both bring up good points regarding potential side effects. Just as we’ve seen with drugs used to treat other conditions (i.e. schizophrenia, depression, etc.) there are typically negative side effects or tradeoffs involved. I’m optimistic that as continued work in this area expands, that we will be able to significantly reduce or eliminate these occurrences in the future. I think we’ll see a prevalence of mood/brain altering drugs in the future including those that are able to alter our memories. We still have a very, very long way to go however before we’re able to roll them out to the populace. It’s all a long-term process but the research covered in this post is a step in that direction. Thanks for reading!

  • EMMA

    This article was very fascinating and I could see how if it was put in place it could make big difference in the world! However, I was wondering this drug when given will it be affecting which memory stage the sensory, working, or long term memory and how long will it be in affect for? While reading my Discovering Psychology textbook in my Psych 101 class I stumbled upon a passage about a man who had killed his wife while he was sleep walking however he did not recall any memory from what had happened the previous night. Do you think if this man was given the drug he would forget this horrifying crime he had committed but remember the memories he had cherished with her. This would make him no longer live in the guilt that probably eats him up all day on a crime he had no control over? Will this drug only be able to delete all negative memories at once or will it start with the most recent and work its way back or vise versa?

    Thank you

    • Hi Emma, thanks for reading. Most research in this area is going to be focused on improving long-term memory but work will be done in sensory/working areas as well to improve basic human cognitive functioning. The case I believe you’re referring to is the Scott Falater case. In his case, let’s suppose that he actually doesn’t remember killing his wife. In this instance, he likely would benefit because although he may not remember the act, it’s in his sub-conscious somewhere. Therefore his level of guilt would likely subside if the memory were completely erased. As for deletion of all negative memories, it would depend on the area of the brain that is targeted and a number of other areas. I think we’re a LONG way off from being able to target specific memories or even specified periods of memories.

  • Ellis

    It is very interesting that a single dose of the drug antihistamine could lead to significant reduction of negative memory, and that these findings could have implications for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. I have to raise the question if it is ethical to use such a drug to reduce memory. Who is to say that we only use this drug on post-traumatic stress disorder patients and not a teenager who had an embarrassing moment and would like to forget about it? Although, there are many other ways that our brains forget memories one is through motivated forgetting which is, “the idea that we forget because we are motivated to forget usually because a memory is unpleasant or disturbing.” One form of motivated forgetting is suppression,” the deliberate, conscious effort to forget information. Suppression maybe a healthier more meaningful way to forget negative memories and can be practiced by the patient with a professional clinical psychologist.
    Reference: Discovering Psychology

    • You bring up a great point Ellis…bioethics are (and rightly so) always going to be an issue when we get into areas of drug therapies and brain modifications achieved via drugs. Alas, that’s a post for another day but you’re right, this is something that we as a society need to focus on as we continue to develop memory manipulation drugs in the future whether we’re talking about those that alter mood, memory, personality or any of the other areas currently being researched. I don’t think that we need to discourage R&D in this area but ethics (and even policy-making) need to play important roles as advances continue in the future.

  • Paige

    I’m not quite convinced that a known antihistamine could have such profound effects on negative memories. How could it specifically target one emotion and not others? How can it determine what type of emotion the human is experiencing at the time? I must say that I’m excited to know that we are progressing in the studies of PTSD. Although I do have some questions and concerns. I would like to know if we have come close to finding any side effects with this particular drug? If someone decides to take this drug how will it effect their memory exactly? Will it completely erase all memory from a traumatic experience or just target certain ones? Is it a drug that one has to take on a daily basis or is it an as needed kind of medication? If a person has experienced multiple traumatic events, does the medicine erase all of the memories? I’m not sure if I would trust a medication with my memories. This coming from someone who suffers from PTSD. Yes, their are certain things I would love to get rid of but not everything that is involved.

    • Hi Paige. The idea of an antihistamine having this kind of effect isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. We’ve been making advances in this area for years now. For instance, we’ve known for some time that we can remove specific receptor proteins that are responsible for creating painful memories in the brain. Your skepticism is valid however. More research needs to be done to confirm the findings in this study….that’s just good science. Regarding the targeting of emotions, my guess is that it has to do with targeting specific regions of the brain. I need to research this more before I can provide you a reliable answer. You’ve posed really good questions though. I’ve reached out to the authors of this specific research paper and hope that one of them will join our conversation here. Thanks for the insightful questions and thanks for reading the blog Paige!

  • Abbey

    I actually think that negative memories are important. I recently learned that memory helps to shape who we are. Even though negative memories are bad, who’s to say who we would be without those memories. I’m not sure that I would really want to trust my memories with medication. Also, I wouldn’t want to reduce those memories because they really helped make who I am. I can see where it can be helpful, like in PTSD cases but do you really want to forget everything that happened?

    • Good points Abbey. Our memories do help shape who we are but who’s to say that having a choice can’t shape who we are as well? If I suffer from PTSD, am I someone different if I choose to become the person I was before the event? Maybe being the individuals that we choose to be (even if we have to erase our memories in the process) is a valid option as well. Just a thought. 🙂

  • Caleb

    Seeing that this antihistamine only affects negative memories, this indicates that these memories are neurologically different for some reason. Is there any information on this distinction or cause of it? The two explanations I could think of are that either the brain distinguishes between positive, negative, or neutral while encoding or else the context effect plays a role and really the mood at time of encoding would cause these neurological differences.

    • Astute observations Caleb. To my knowledge, no one has shown that memory types are neurologically different and I don’t believe they are. This study indicates that we are able to isolate different memory types through targeted gene manipulation. This leads us to believe that they’re not necessarily different, but that they are instead isolated within groups of individual genome types. Whether the brain distinguishes this or context/mood/etc. plays a role in affecting them is the type of thing that neuroscientists are likely investigating now.

  • dk

    I’m pretty skeptical about this new drug, because the article did not go into very much detail about it. It almost seemed like the author doesn’t even really know how the drug works very well. The article is interesting, and if the drug works it could be very beneficial. But in what way does it affect memory? There are very few details about that, and does it work on long-term, short-term, or both types of memory? How long after the traumatic experience do you need to take it?

    • All good questions dk and ones I suspect the researchers will target in future studies. Thanks for reading!

  • Tj

    i think this drug could be extremely beneficial to our society if used correctly. Long term memory in our brain can be broken down into two sub-catogories; that is Explicit memory and Implicit memory. This new drug seems to be effecting only Episodic memory(which falls under the category of Explicit memory). Episodic memory is memory in which experienced events are remembered and the emotions you get from them. Being able to eliminate a specific memory from the Episodic memory could be very useful in cases of PTSD. But is the drug just completely whipping out all of the brains Episodic memory? is it having negative effects on your long term memory? Even if the drug has no effects on your positive Episodic memories, is the patient still losing the negative memories? negative memories do help make up the person we are today. I would need more information on this drug to fully agree with the usage of it. But the progress sound substantial and this could really change the way we will if done correctly.

    • I would agree TJ. We need a lot more data on this but you’ve made some good points. Thanks for reading!

  • Chris Greathouse

    I believe that in the right circumstances, this drug will be a very positive thing. As someone has stated below me, negative memories, although unpleasant, are still just as important as positive memories. However I do agree that this would be a great way to help people with PTSD. TJ (the commenter beneath me) raises a valid point in that messing with your Episodic Memory could have potential consequences to your overall Long-Term Memory. How can it be controlled as to what memories are forgotten? To what degree of “negativity” must a memory have to be forgotten? A person must hold at least some memories of discomfort. Without the bad times to contrast with them, the good times wouldn’t seem as good.

    • Thanks Chris. All valid questions and concerns that need to be addressed in this area. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Rhiannon Beckley

    How does this drug only manage to affect negative memories? I know that scientists have made significant discoveries and progress in terms of memory treatment and the basis of memory loss; would the basis of tests such as these be in relation to emotions and the brain’s ability to consciously want to suppress these memories? People can eventually repress their memories over time, and given the description of the effects of the drug, I’m assuming that the process speeds up? I feel like there are a lot of unknowns with the antihistamine. Over time, the drug could potentially decrease the brain’s ability to put negative situations into the working memory, and disabling the transfer of those memories into long-term memory. Because of our lack of knowledge on the basis of memory and the procedures (for lack of a better term) that our brain goes through when storing memories, we’ve no idea the short and long-term effects the drug might have.

    • Hi Rhiannon. In recent years, neuroscientists actually have developed a molecular explanation of how and why memories change. Our definition of memory has changed over time to not only include those from childhood, but also the persisting mental loops of illnesses like PTSD and addiction—and even pain disorders like neuropathy. Whenever the brain wants to retain something, it relies on just a handful of chemicals. Only a small family of compounds appear to be a universal eraser of history. By isolating these compounds, we can essentially erase isolated areas of our memory. You’re right though, the short/long-term effects are still unknowns…probably the reason we don’t yet have these types of drugs available within the marketplace.

  • Brooke

    This article is fascinating but it lacks substantial information. Just the idea of a drug that is purposely designed to cause memory loss seems quite bizarre. Aside from the lack of information provided about the drug, there is a lot to be discussed. The idea of being able to essentially get rid of PTSD sounds great. But there would have to be a kick to it, how could one be sure that the drug would only target certain memories? And although it may sound crazy, some “negative” memory is important to survive. And has Abbey said before me, memory is important in shaping who we are.

    • Hi Brooke. The idea of erasing memories via drugs isn’t new. Johns Hopkins University scientists made pretty big strides in this area a few years back. But as you point out, there are certainly ethical dilemmas involved with this that we must consider including whether or not we change ourselves when we erase our memories. Here’s an article that addresses this:

  • marie

    This article is very interesting, but lacks some things. I do believe having this drug would be substantial, but would need to go through some tests. Although the drug would be nice to have, how do we know that the drug is producing correct memories. If we don’t remember something, then we take a drug that makes us remember, how do we know that its a true memory and not something our mind just made up? And how would that be tested? Also what if its a memory we don’t want to uncover? I guess we wouldn’t take it if that were the case. These are just some strange things I was thinking while reading this article.

    • All great points and questions Marie. Thanks for reading and the comment!

  • Henry o neil

    Very innovative findings.But it really needs more inspection before any serious implementation.There is always the risk of some negative effect of this,most probably memory loss.

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