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New insights into the mind’s workings as scary as they are exciting

Submitted by on Monday, 6 April 2009 No Comment
brainIf there were a medication that would make you forget downing one too many at the company holiday dinner and laying one on the boss's better half, would you take it? Would you slip it to the boss, too?

If you could pop a pill and ace the LSAT, would you do it?

Those are the ethical questions the next generation could face if promising new research into how the brain forms and keeps memories continues along the usual path from mice to men.

It's a path that at times has led us astray - remember when saccharine carried a warning label based on cancers in lab rats? This time, though, scientists believe they're onto something in the discovery of a molecule critical to memory and of an experimental drug that let them erase an animal's recall.

“If this molecule is as important as it appears to be, you can see the possible implications,” Dr. Todd C. Sacktor, a 52-year-old neuroscientist who leads the team at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, told The New York Times. “For trauma. For addiction, which is a learned behavior. Ultimately for improving memory and learning.”

The molecule appears to control how animals store memories about locations, fears and actions but doesn't regulate how those memories are accessed, an article at psyorg.com says. Research found that erasing the molecule in rats eradicated memories without changing how the brain functions otherwise.

It has a creepy, science-fiction feel to it, doesn't it? The benefits could be immense, though.

"Negative memory erasing not only could help people forget painful experiences, but might be useful in treating depression, general anxiety, phobias, post-traumatic stress, and addictions," psychology professor and researcher Andre Fenton told psyorg.com.

Victims of violent crimes could live trauma-free lives. Drug abuse, which some believe is a learned behavior, could be cured. If continued research finds a way to manipulate the flip side as well - boosting memory - the impact on dementia patients would be breath-taking.

On the other hand, anabolic steroids have a wealth of therapeutic uses, too. It didn't take athletes long, though, to figure out off-label uses for the drugs' abilities to build muscle and add weight without adding fat. From then on, it was a short hop from Mark McGwire to BALCO to Barry Bonds to nearly 100 other baseball players.

Everyone else is doing it. I have to keep up.

If you answer is to tightly regulate any memory-altering drugs, well, that didn't work so well with steroids. It took Congress a decade to make steroids controlled substances, in part because medical authorities didn't consider them addictive and worthy of such controls. Even if a drug is tightly controlled, that's not going to stop black-hat scientists from studying research and setting up shop.

How would beneficial medications be distributed? Under the current American system, a private company would patent them and rake in profits for years by selling them to those who with enough money or a good insurance plan. Tough luck to the have nots.

If you thought stem-cell research was loaded with ethical issues, just wait until you see what this one lays on our laps.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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