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Researcher discovers drug to erase traumatic memories

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Li-Huei Tsai published a study Thursday in the journal Cell about an experimental drug that erases traumatic memories in mice.

Tsai and her researchers concluded that one dose of the drug, called a histone deacetylase 2 inhibitor, allowed the mice to forget memories from the distant past that had caused fear or anxiety.

“We are interested in the mechanism in underlying memory extinction, especially at the cellular-micro level,” Tsai said. “There is this very well established observation in the literature that recent memory can be extinguished using behavioral training. But distant memory or long-term remote, or old memories, are more resistant to extinction training.”

Because anxiety disorders are not scientifically curable, there are very few strategies used to erase traumatic memories in humans. However, Tsai said her study shows how behavioral training, mixed with a dose of HDAC2, could be the key to erasing these memories.

According to Tsai’s research, the HDAC2 inhibitors make the brain more malleable and allow patients to learn new associations and replace the traumatic memory.

“Based on our previous studies, when we look at the memory reconsolidation process, to our surprise, increase in histone isolation seems to play a very important role in reconsolidation and extinction,” she said.

Postdoctoral associate Damien Rei worked with Tsai on the research project, said this research has a lot of translational value.

“That data has been acquired, and there are a lot of interesting possibilities for the patients and patients in particular that are suffering from PTSD,” he said.

Rei said there are multiple possibilities for using the study’s results, though more research still needs to be done.  Researchers would most likely test the HDAC2 inhibitors on monkeys before introducing it to people.

“If investigators think that the drug used in the study is good enough, the next step is to do clinical trials,” he said. “So, in that regard, it could take five or 10 years before actually getting the drug on the market.”

Tsai said she hopes scientists who focus on post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety problems and addiction will further study the results of her research and that future research will address some of the issues that were discovered in the most recent study.

“In terms of the more translational aspect, small molecule HDAC inhibitors were developed previously for oncology purposes,” she said. “For the central nervous system, there is always this concern about safety. Now I understand there are pharmaceutical companies that have HDAC inhibitor programs with the goal to identify more content and safe compounds that can be administered to humans.”

Several residents said they were wary of a drug that can permanently affect memories. Percy Ballard, 32, of Fenway, is skeptical of any drug that can erase memories permanently. He said he would only recommend it to someone who has a full understanding of the risks and benefits of taking it.

“The brain isn’t like a hard drive,” he said. “You can’t just erase it. If the memory is suppressed, there would probably be something left behind, like some sort of a symptom.”

Joe Holt, 20, of Back Bay, said the drug could be useful for people returning home from conflicts overseas.

“For people coming back from wars that want to forget that part of their lives, that could be kind of cool,” he said. “If I knew someone who went through something so bad they needed it, I guess I would recommend it to them.”

Zachary Kerr, 20, of Fenway, said he thought any drug that inhibits the brain and its natural functions is not good.

“I wouldn’t recommend a drug like that because I feel like anything like that needs to be dealt with physically,” he said. “[They should] go to a therapist or talking to someone about it. I think that just chemically suppressing memories isn’t good.”


  1. this sounds too good to be true. I suffer from SEVERE ptsd and can no longer work. I wish I could erase the memories that replay in my mind constantly. However, researchers always claim they find a way to erase memories but they never seem to get it to the humans who need it.

    Please researchers, for those of us suffering hurry up and get it to humans.

  2. I agree with you Gail. I also suffer with ptsd and also OCD recurring thoughts that medications cannot control. I would welcome a drug to remove these thoughts and memories, but I agree – the scientists are taking too long to get it to people.

    I would even agree to erase all of my memories and have total amnesia in order to have peace of mind and be free of the thoughts which torture me daily as well. Anyone who suffers as we do with mental illness I think would agree with us!!!!

  3. This sounds like what the did or tried to do with LSD experiments with returning Vietnam Veterans. I wonder how it would be to feel this intense emotional reaction from the other parts of your body then not really know why the reaction is there. The past memories both good and bad is what I believe makes a person human by learning consequences both good or bad including those incidents where we had no control or power over the situation and were a true victim of someone else’s action for what ever the intent may have been. For those with children and the bonding that took place would this be sacrificed, memories of other good and positive event’s that took place in everyone’s life this would all be erased because of the fewer events we hang on to. I would like to see the data as well as the measurements of how it was determined in Mice that their long term memory was removed. This article does not indicate a selective removal of memories but a complete wipe out of certain part of the brain or those areas that have been proven to hold memories. Even cells have been proven to hold memories and can be passed on through children. The process of the intensity of the event imprints upon all your senses not just one local area of the brain. Think of the extremes, that this little pill cold have with those organizations that will immediately take control of it. I believe it is important to keep memories and hold on to the feelings and enjoyment of the good ones, the bad ones there are ways to let go of the emotions and physiological release of the event that brings about self-judgment and grief. There is no indication in the article it is a selective memory eraser, it implies it simply erases the memories. To me that indicates both good and bad along with the lessons learned and nothing is mentioned about the secondary trauma on the five senses which will continue to react and having that memory gone would cause more and increased emotional dis-regulation. And can any-one tell me the length of memory of a mouse other than the instinctual reactions that are part of their birth being a victim of food more so than a predator.