Dr. Alain Brunet a Montreal researcher has spent over 15 years studying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), working with combat veterans, people who have experienced terror attacks and crime victims, and says he has found a way to edit memories using therapy and beta-blockers used for treating blood pressure issues.
Much of his research has centered on the development of what he calls “reconsolidation therapy”, an innovative approach that can help remove emotional pain from a traumatic memory including a painful relationship break up.
At the heart of his research is a pharmaceutical product known as propranolol, a beta-blocker long used to treat common physical ailments like hypertension and migraines, but which research now suggests has a wider application.
The method involves taking propranolol an hour before a therapy session in which the patient is asked to write a detailed account of their trauma and then read it aloud.
“Often when you recall memory, if there’s something new to learn, this memory will unlock and you can update it, and it will be saved again,” the Canadian clinical psychologist says.
That process is better known as reconsolidation which creates a window of opportunity to target the highly emotional portion of that memory.
“We’re using this enhanced understanding of how memories are formed and how they are unlocked and updated and saved again – we’re essentially using this recent knowledge coming out of neuroscience to treat patients,” says Dr. Brunet.
“Imagine that you are shooting a movie in an old-fashioned way so you have the image and the sound and they are on two separate channels,” he says.
When a person relives their traumatic memory, they experience both channels. Propranolol helps target one channel, the emotional aspect of memory inhibiting its reconsolidation and suppressing its pain.
A memory recalled under the influence of the medication will then be “saved” by the brain in its new, less emotional version.
His research has suggested about 70% of patients found relief within a few sessions of reconsolidation therapy.
Dr. Brunet has collaborated with other PTSD researchers, including Harvard University’s PTSD expert Dr. Roger Pitman, in studying the method.
After showing success with post-traumatic stress, the doctor says he wanted to broaden the application for the treatment.
In 2015, along with one of his graduate students, Michelle Lonergan, at McGill University in Montreal, he began looking into using this treatment for those that are traumatized by a bad breakup.
“If you look at Greek tragedies what are they of? Essentially betrayals,” he says. “It’s really at the heart of the human experience.”
A bad breakup can also be tremendously painful, he notes, and people can feel emotional reactions similar to those seen in trauma survivors.
The patients they recruited for the study weren’t suffering just a mild case of heartbreak. There were cases of infidelity. Some had been suddenly abandoned by someone they believed was a loving partner.
They were struggling to cope and were people who “cannot turn the page, they cannot get over it”, says Dr. Brunet.
“That’s what people were constantly telling them, which is not helpful. But [their friends] are pinpointing the problem.”
What he and Dr. Lonergan found was that, like with PTSD, many of the heartbreak sufferers felt relief, some after a single reconsolidation therapy session.
After five sessions, when they read aloud the memory of their betrayal, they had the “impression that this could have been written by someone else it was like reading a novel”.
“This treatment approximates the normal working of memory, how we gradually forget and turn the page,” he says.
Dr. Brunet is also hopeful the scope of reconsolidation therapy can be expanded further, used to treat phobias, addiction, complicated grief.
“Any type of distress which emanates from an emotional event,” he says.