‘Eternal Sunshine’ in a pill: Researchers say they can alter memories of your bad breakup

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Oct 31, 2022 at 12:06 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Remember the 2004 sci-fi mindfuck film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, the movie toyed with the idea of a technology capable of purging specific memories connected to a person. Hooked up to a device, the medical procedure happens overnight and the subject wakes up completely forgetting the target person and all the experiences connected with them.

Fast forward to 2022, it seems like the memory-erasing science may finally become a reality as we slowly usher in a new era of chemical breakups.

Romantic betrayals and propranolol

In a recent study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Affective Disorders, scientists asked test subjects to recall their traumatic memories of “romantic betrayal” under the influence of the beta-blocker propranolol, which is typically prescribed for high blood pressure, migraines, and certain anxiety disorders. This time around, however, the drug was deployed to dull the trauma associated with painful relationship memories.

In an interview with PsyPost, Alain Brunet, a clinical psychologist and psychiatry professor at McGill University, explained that the procedure first requires the subject to recall all the excruciating memories that are meant to be dulled under the influence of the drug.

“Reconsolidation therapy consists in recalling a bad memory under the influence of propranolol with the help of a trained therapist,” Brunet explained. “This treatment approach is a translational treatment stemming from the research in neuroscience which stipulates that a recalled memory needs to be saved again to long-term memory storage in order to persist. Interfering with the storage process will yield a degraded (less emotional) memory.”

In the study, Brunet and his colleagues recruited 55 adults who met the DSM-5 criteria for adjustment disorder and had all experienced a romantic betrayal in their past, such as infidelity in a long-term, monogamous relationship. The subjects were asked to write a first-person narrative of their romantic betrayal or abandonment and later told to focus on the “most emotionally provocative aspects” of the event. The participants then ingested propranolol before reading the narrative out loud, noting any stress reactions they had in the process like sweating, trembling, or tension.

Of the 55 test subjects, 48 completed all five writing sessions and 35 of them said in a follow-up survey that they experienced improvements in their symptoms for at least four months after the treatment.

The future of anti-love drugs

According to Brunet, the goal of the study was to see if the clinical results of using reconsolidation therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients could also be applied to those who have experienced bad breakups.

“Romantic betrayal (a form of adjustment disorder) seemed like an interesting topic to study because, first, it is very distressing,” the expert shared. “Second, it is one of the most common reasons why individuals seek professional help. Finally, there is very little help available for romantically betrayed individuals who do not wish to return with their partner.”

Compared to the emotional distress the subjects experienced before the treatment, Brunet further said that adjustment disorder is “no ‘wimpy’ disorder”—adding that the label is yet another misconception when it comes to relationships. “Looking at the severity of symptoms, we were surprised at how painful adjustment disorder can be,” he continued.

Although the research utilised a within-subjects open-label design, which limits the ability to draw strong conclusions about causality, the findings undoubtedly foster an important foundation for future research surrounding anti-love biotechnology.

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