Roadwork on Memory Lane


Memory alteration has been the inspiration for many a science-fiction movie, from Star Trek to Total Recall. McGill psychology professor Karim Nader has brought the concept to real life. Nader recently found that propanolol, a drug normally used as a blood pressure medication, could ease the intensity of painful memories such as those experienced by patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but will not alter memories that provide context to the event in question.

That means a soldier being treated for PTSD may be able to lessen or dispel the image of losing a buddy in battle, while still being able to retain details like where he was when the traumatic event occurred.

After conducting experiments on rats, Nader, whose research is funded by CIHR, and colleagues from McGill and Harvard obtained results that suggest that recalling a memory produces changes only in its content, rather than wholesale changes. The work explains why each time a memory is retrieved and updated, none of the other memories indirectly associated with it is altered.

Nader’s previous work showed that when you remember memories, they have to be restabilized in order to persist. If you block this consolidation mechanism, then the memory is functionally no longer there. According to Nader, it is possible the initial findings, which were described in the journal Nature in 2000, inspired the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.