The Pentagon hasn’t come close to solving the PTSD crisis plaguing
the current generation of troops. But a cutting-edge realm of treatment
might change that — by wiping away the fear that military personnel
associate with traumatic memories.
The Pentagon this week announced an $11 million grant
for three research institutions, all of them long-time hubs for the
military’s ongoing PTSD investigations. Experts at Emory University, the
University of Southern California and New York-Presbyterian/Weill
Cornell Medical Center will study the effectiveness of D-Cycloserine
(DCS). DCS is a pharmaceutical thought to help extinguish fearful
memories. It’s usually taken right before exposure therapy, a process
that involves recalling traumatic experiences in an effort to nullify
the menacing associations that accompany them.
Exposure therapy is thought to work by allowing patients to revisit
traumas in safe settings. Every time the mind remembers an event, it
“rewrites” that recollection. By helping a patient rewrite traumatic
memories to be less frightening, studies suggest that exposure therapy
can significantly improve symptoms like nightmares and flashbacks.
Adding DCS seems to hasten that process, targeting the precise brain pathways responsible for regulating fear responses.
Of course, the idea of using drugs to tweak memories isn’t without controversy: An online debate
flared last year among two camps of neurologists and neuroethicists,
arguing over whether the existence of such drugs would “alter something
that makes us all human,” or open a Pandora’s Box of illicit use “by
people doing things they’d like to forget themselves, or that they would
like others to forget.”
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