A pill for PTSD? Not so fast. But this article, entitled “Pill Could Erase Painful Memories, Study Shows,” and unfortunately many others like it, would certainly have you believe it could soon be that simple.
The study they’re referring to investigated the impact of blocking glucocorticoids (GCs; the most familiar of these is cortisol, a.k.a. the “stress hormone”) after a lab-induced traumatic experience. The researchers showed volunteers a disturbing film clip and gave them either the GC-inhibitor metyrapone or a placebo, and they found that those who received the drug were notably less able to recall details of the film four days later. The study was published in the August 2011 Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. The full text is not freely available, but the abstract makes no mention of the concerns I’m about to explain.
I could pick apart the methodology on several bases, but I’m most alarmed by the interpretation of the results. The abstract attributes this conclusion to the authors:
“These results show that decreasing GC levels via metyrapone administration is an efficient way to reduce the strength of an emotional memory in a long-lasting manner.”
This is specious logic. First, four days does not constitute a long-lasting result in this context. More importantly, the fact that the subjects could not recall the details does NOT necessarily mean the memory was reduced in strength. It could mean the memory was suppressed, which makes it even more likely to cause emotional harm later. It’s the psychological equivalent of creating an antibiotic-resistant “superbug.”
The ideal outcome in PTSD treatment is NOT eliminating memories of trauma; rather, it is eliminating the unbearable emotion attached to those memories. People who have been successfully treated do not have their memories “erased”; they instead become able to remember the factual content without reliving the event emotionally and physiologically.
I agree that research into the neurochemical cascade that follows a traumatic event is worthwhile and promising, but this research–and ALL research–must also acknowledge the risks of misinterpretation.
I encourage you to question the conclusion of every study that is important to you. Do you agree with the researchers’ takeaways? Always consider whether some other explanation is possible. A well-written study includes some “yeah-buts”–alternative conclusions proposed by the authors: yeah, we think the data means this, but it could also mean that, or that, or that. If a study has no “yeah-buts,” I wonder whether the researchers maintained professional objectivity throughout the experimentation process.
And don’t rely on the media for your interpretation. Find the original study yourself (or at least the abstract, which is usually free). You don’t have to be a clinician or statistician to understand it. Read the intro and conclusions, and ask yourself whether there could be some other explanation. Usually there can be. This is why we need to see a consistent outcome across multiple studies before we can be confident that we’re actually seeing what we think we’re seeing, and even then, the interpretation of the data must be sound.
I’m confident the data outcomes of this study could be replicated, but that still would not support the conclusions these authors have drawn about that data. You can see a thousand images of orbs, but that doesn’t make ghosts a thousand times more likely to exist.