Freedom of Memory

Should people who have experienced a traumatic event be allowed or even encouraged to take memory-dampening drugs to ward off potential psychological distress?

This was the central question of law professor Adam Kolber’s talk last Friday at the Neuroethics of Memory symposium, hosted by SUNY Downstate in New York City.

Kolber believes that, for the most part, a person should have the right to control his or her memories, calling this the “freedom of memory.” For those of you familiar with Kolber’s work, this should not come as a surprise; in August he published a paper, “Neuroethics: Give memory-altering drugs a chance,” which was covered by a number of media outlets.

Drugs such as propranolol, studied on patients with PTSD, have shown signs of dampening a memory’s impact if given within a few hours of trauma. But some worry that if these drugs become widely available, they could complicate trials (among other issues), which largely depend on witness testimony (an issue being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court).

As a lawyer, Kolber understands the importance of informational recall in the courtroom. A large part of his lecture focused on how dampened memories could affect legal decisions (after all, emotional distress can be a consideration in a case). He deferred to legal precedent to explain his opinions on various scenarios, noting that the law often has to confront difficult issues before the science is ready.

Looking to a hypothetical future scenario in which memory-dampening drugs are widely available, Kolber posits that an accident victim might be expected to take a memory-dampening drug to treat potential emotional distress. Electing not to take the drug following a serious car accident, for example, could render that person responsible for delayed psychological trauma. Kolber likens this to a current-day scenario, in which someone elects not to fix a broken leg following an accident, but later sues for emotional distress due to pain and suffering caused by the leg. In both of these cases, Kolber believes that the injured person should not expect to receive damages for emotional distress.

Should people really be required to make such an important decision immediately following a traumatic event? They don’t yet know if they’ll suffer from emotional impairment down the road. But, as Kolber counters, even today a patient may have to decide whether to amputate a limb, not knowing all future ramifications of the decision.

The neuroethics of memory is clearly a topic that will become more prominent as technologies and drugs advance and demand for memory-dampening technology grows. Kolber cited a recent pilot experiment in which researchers asked traumatized people if they would want to take a memory-dampening drug – approximately 50 percent said yes.

–Ann L. Whitman

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