- Published: October 31, 2012
One exciting new advance in how we understand and control our brains and minds is the advent of memory-altering drugs. Of specific relevance to the law are memory-dampening drugs. Certain drugs are being investigated as possible ways to treat PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and these drugs have been shown to alter memory and emotion. Memory and emotion are deeply intertwined; a stronger emotional reaction to a situation results in a better memory of the situation. Patients with PTSD are constantly traumatized by recurring memories resulting from an incredibly strong emotional reaction to a situation they experienced. One such drug being investigated as a possible treatment is propanolol, a beta-blocker, which can reduce the consolidation of emotional memory by weakening emotionality associated with traumatic memories by inhibiting the effects of stress hormones. Propanolol, when given immediately after an emotional trauma, may weaken emotional and possibly even factual aspects of memory. As these memory-dampening drugs have been studied more, many ethical concerns surrounding their use have arisen: Will these drugs make peoples’ lives less genuine as people would have more control over what they do and don't experience? Will these drugs make people less apathetic?
There are also legal concerns. There are many issues surrounding how the legal system would handle the use of these drugs (some of which Adam J. Kolber elaborates on in this review). Memory is very important to the law, as a source of information and as part of a claim for damages. Kolber elucidates three legal issues as a result of memory-dampening drugs. The first issue is the drugs’ impact on implied consent to give these drugs. If we were to use these drugs for memory dampening, it may be difficult to gain informed consent because (in the case of propanolol) they are most effective in the first 6 hours after a traumatic event. The second issue Kolber discusses is that these drugs could possibly be used for the obstruction of justice (for example, they could be given to someone so they won’t testify in court). The last issue he touches on is that there must be rules established about the use of these drugs, as the drugs can affect the mitigation of emotional damages drastically. There are many legal issues surrounding memory-altering drugs.
These drugs have potentially powerful effects, and just like all other powerful drugs, their consumption must be regulated. The legal system can benefit and get hurt by memory-dampening technology, so it is very important that rules concerning the use of these drugs be put into place. Proper regulation of memory-dampening drugs can result in therapeutic benefits to patients while maintaining a fair legal system.
Kolber, A. “Give memory-altering drugs a chance.” Nature, (476): 275-276. (2011)
Kolber, A. “Therapeutic Forgetting: The Legal and Ethical Implications of Memory Dampening.” Vanderbilt Law Review 59 (5):1561-1626. (2006)