One of my biggest joys in life is accepting opportunities that come out of the blue and create new insights. Yesterday evening, for example, Vivian invited me to join her for a visit to Montreal to attend the McGill University Alumni Association?s Honours and Awards Banquet. A few years ago, she had made a significant (but not out-of-this-world huge) contribution for a research project.
Universities especially appreciate that memories of the formative years linger among people who later in life achieve great success and wealth. Tug a few emotional strings and provide a good meal and the money flows.
I didn?t graduate from McGill ? but have fond memories of the university at a student university newspaper conference and then, a couple of years later, visiting with a girlfriend (we parted company) on my way to Africa. And the hotel across the street from the University also happened to be the building where I spent my first night with Vivian after marrying her in 1993. So this is a place of wonderful memories.
We found our assigned seats in the hotel ballroom, and I looked around the table with Vivian next to me and complete strangers all around. The university development officer hoping to secure additional contributions from Vivian briefly visited her and greeted her and then we sat down for the event ? a series of awards commemorating Alumni who had made significant contributions to the university in making connections and raising funds. The awards also recognized some students and researchers.
Fortunately for me (and my memory!) Karim Naderreceived one of the first awards, before servers brought the main course to the table. Nader certainly didn?t follow the conventions in the room. Dressed very casually, he openly planted his blackberry or iPhone (I didn?t look at the electronic device closely enough to tell which it was) on the table and frequently glanced at it. Karim, it seems, has been changing the rules of the game regarding memory research.
He started off by telling about the challenges in getting decisions made at the U.S. Military Hospital in Bethesda, MD. My ears perked up. I?ve been to that neck of the woods a few times in the context of publishing regional construction news in the Washington DC area (and more recently, developing The Design and Construction Report.) But this evening wasn?t about me. I knew nothing of Nader?s research but thankfully have the journalist?s skill of drawing out the story and asking questions with deep interest. And I did.
Turns out, Nader has discovered that memories can be ?reconsolidated? and then the consequences of memories changed with beta-blocker drugs (yes, these are intended for heart conditions he has discovered an originally unintended but useful side effect.) Early research suggests that if painful memories are brought forward while the drug is working in the system, the factual memory doesn?t disappear but the emotional component is diminished. In other words, you don?t actually lose all your memory, but just the stuff that really hurts (or perhaps, makes you feel really good.)
Researchers working with Nader are evaluating whether this reconsolidation capacity could result in a solution to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where memories of extremely stressful events cause havoc in the lives of sufferers. Could a process of recreating the memories and then helping the victims revise their thoughts with some beta-blocker medications cure the problem?
Not surprisingly, this knowledge could have real applications in the military world when young soldiers experience horrors most of us only could imagine (and we really can?t). If the solution to PTSD is to ?recreate? the memory ? perhaps by reading a script ? in a safe environment and then giving the victim some medication originally intended for heart conditions, I think you can see how the concept of field military hospitals might change. (Nader says however he has discovered that the U.S. military establishment is something of a maze ? if you get the right support, things happen really quickly, but you don?t always know who has the power to make things happen.)
I asked him if the concepts here could be expanded to drug treatment therapies (he said, yes) and whether they could be abused. The latter question is more difficult because the concepts are new, but science has a way of being applied for evil as well as good.
Then, what about good memories? McGill?s Alumni Association and other fund raisers (and marketers) certainly work with these concepts. The true situation might be clouded by years of life and experience but the good meal and shared conversation just might make you think more fondly of your wonderful University days and how you can help the institution with a research grant.
(But I doubt that we would win any ethics awards if we tried to correct problems of clients with bad memories of our organizations by slipping them a few beta-blockers in their drinks.)