Army to fund research on memory pill that may help PTSD victims
ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army has agreed to fund research to see if a drug used to treat high blood pressure might be able to lessen the emotional impact of memories associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
CBS’ “60 Minutes” first reported Nov. 26 that the Army was looking at whether the drug Propranolol could be used to treat PTSD.
Researchers hope to recruit several dozen veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan from the greater Boston area for the study, said psychologist Dr. Scott P. Orr, who will help conduct the research.
The study will look at whether Propranolol can reduce veterans’ emotional responses to certain memories by cutting down on the accompanying surge of adrenaline, said Orr, who works at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manchester, N.H.
In initial tests, people given the drug were observed to have reduced physiological responses, such as heart rates, to certain memories, said Orr, who is also part of the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Orr stressed that the drug would not erase veterans’ memories. “It isn’t that the memory’s being changed — the memory is still there,” he said. “It’s that the emotional response that is attached to the memory is being reduced.”
But Dr. Judith Broder, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist who is the founder of a nonprofit organization that provides free mental health services to veterans, said she has some reservations.
“I worry about several things,” Broder said in a Friday e-mail to Stars and Stripes. “First, I believe our soldiers often feel dehumanized by their time in the service. To then ‘treat’ them with a drug that potentially ‘numbs’ them, may further alienate them.”
She also said she fears that the VA, underfunded and facing an increasing number of veterans returning with PTSD, might resort to “cost-effective” solutions, such as giving veterans with PTSD a pill rather than the therapy they need.
“Another issue of concern is that of ‘informed consent,’” she said. “Soldiers are used to following orders. These soldiers are now suffering from a disorder and of course want relief from their suffering. Is it really possible to give informed consent to an experimental procedure under these conditions?”
Orr said in response that the research is not intended to see if Propranolol can produce “emotional numbing.”
“If anything, what it does is it reduces the intensity of the emotion such that the emotional reaction may become more manageable for the person,” he said.
“It is not a replacement for psychotherapy — rather, it becomes an adjunct; it becomes a useful tool for psychotherapy,” Orr said.
As for the issue of informed consent, Orr said researchers “generally bend over backwards” to give people participating in research all the information they need on the potential risks and benefits they would face.
Orr said the upcoming research will be headed by one of his colleagues, Dr. Roger Pittman at Harvard University.
The Army and Pittman are still negotiating how much his grant will be and how the study will unfold, said Chuck Dasey, a spokesman for Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Md. Pittman could be awarded up to $625,000 a year for four years to conduct the research, Dasey said.