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

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.

The future of breakups is here with the help of anti-love biotechnology

We can pop a pill for almost any affliction but finding a cure for love always seemed outside the realm of scientific manipulation—at least, until now. Scientists have been exploring how drugs used to treat addictions could be repurposed to help someone end a toxic relationship or even treat heartbreak, indicating a new era of chemical breakups. These futuristic treatments are known as anti-love biotechnology and they will make you question everything you think you know about love.

You might be wondering why scientists would want to cure people from being in love in the first place—is heartbreak really something that needs medical treatment? It could be argued that being in love resembles a state of illness more closely than you might think. Common patterns of behaviour associated with falling in love, such as obsessive thoughts, compulsive actions, delusions, increased anxiety or sleepless nights are considered traits of mental health disorders too. Scientists have also discovered that falling in love is associated with changes in brain neurochemistry that closely resemble drug addiction and neuroimaging studies of people who experienced an unwanted breakup have shown similar brain activity as those in withdrawal from cocaine addiction.

Should we treat love as an addiction?

Poets, scholars and philosophers have long warned about the power of unrequited love to wreak havoc and destruction, which is surprisingly similar to the all-consuming consequences of addiction. One large multi-country study found that substance abuse was significantly higher in 15-year-olds who had been in love than teenagers who had never experienced the same, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, family affluence, or country of residence. While these findings may not seem shocking to anyone who watches Euphoria, it’s concerning that simply being struck by cupid’s arrow can increase one’s risk of addiction.

This correlation between relationships and addiction have led scientists to explore the use of anti-love drugs—that would help people move on from unhealthy relationships and traumatic experiences much in the same way that drug addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is treated. In fact, many of the drugs being used to treat addiction are the very ones being repurposed to treat relationship problems.

The latest anti-love drugs

Oxytocin, known as the love hormone, became a major contender for use in anti-love biotechnology after studies proved its ability in helping alcoholics overcome addiction cravings and decrease the intensity of distressing experiences in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Oxytocin helps build trust and affection between people, it increases dramatically while we fall in love and its levels correlate with how long a relationship lasts. However, scientists have discovered that the hormone can also have a dark side, as its positive benefits can backfire depending on the social context. For example, in a study where patients with depression took oxytocin while alone, it caused them to recall distressing memories more vividly.

It’s common knowledge that heartbreak is accompanied by reliving painful and upsetting memories. Fortunately, scientists have come up with a cure that could dull the intensity of painful memories by repurposing a sedative used for anaesthesia. In a study pioneering this treatment, participants who were injected with the sedative while recalling a distressing story found the memory to be less vivid than those who didn’t receive the same. While this may seem reminiscent of the 2004 blockbuster hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the crucial difference is that the sedative doesn’t erase the painful memories—you can still remember them clearly but feel more apathetic towards them.

Ethics of a chemical breakup

Anti-love biotechnology is riddled with ethical implications that need to be considered before chemical treatments aiming to end relationships can be approved at large. Unlike couples therapy with MDMA, where both parties willingly consent and seek treatment to rescue their relationship, the ethical issues surrounding voluntary treatment and consent are murkier when only one party wants to end a relationship.

Neuro-ethicist Brian Earp, who coined the term ‘anti-love biotechnology’ and recently published Love Drugs: The Chemical Future of Relationships, believes that anti-love drugs could in principle be helpful for some people in abusive relationships who want to leave their partner but feel conflicted by their feelings. Dr Earp argues that the use of such drugs, when combined with therapy, could one day help victims overcome the addictive feelings they have for their partner, making it easier for them to cut ties and recover from the trauma.

Consultant Psychiatrist Doctor Stefan Ivantu, on the other hand, is concerned about the use of anti-love drugs to end relationships—arguing that toxic alliances shouldn’t be manipulated with medication under any circumstances. According to him, the relationships we choose to be in are often a product of our childhood, family relationships and life experiences. “Suppose someone’s upbringing or past relationship trauma has led to an unhealthy attachment style. In that case, this pattern of deeply ingrained behaviour needs to be addressed through therapy alone, rather than seeking a quick fix with a drug,” he said. Both Dr Earp and Doctor Ivantu’s perspectives reflect a larger ongoing debate about whether medical professionals should prescribe medication to assist in the treatment of addiction.

Beyond the ethics of the treatment, if anti-love drugs are approved for use in abusive relationships, it also begs the question of other possibilities where they could be leveraged to end relationships considered undesirable or harmful by societal, religious or cultural norms. Governments have a long and ongoing history of forcing minority groups to conform with societal norms under the guise of medical practices, such as conversion therapy. All of this, while LGBTQ+ communities still aren’t given equal rights to medical care in even the most progressive countries of the world.

Another concern is that anti-love biotechnology could threaten sexuality and relationship diversity, according to Dr Kristina Gupta, an Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Dr Gupta writes that due to the considerable social, legal and economic pressure to conform with a heterosexual and monogamous model of sexuality, individuals may feel directly pressured or coerced to chemically alter their feelings to avoid socially stigmatised desires or attractions. Additionally, if anti-love drugs are prescription-only, it will be crucial to consider how the views held by doctors could lead to prejudice and discrimination in how these drugs are recommended.

Overall, the advent of anti-love biotechnology presents a myriad of complex ethical issues and philosophical debates on how we define romantic love and identify when it might be considered addictive, harmful, or simply undesirable. Scientific, medical and political communities and society at large will also have to determine the instances when it is ethically appropriate to intervene in someone’s love life by using anti-love biotechnology. How far are we willing to go when it comes to medicalising or prescribing away feelings of love? Who gets to decide who we can love and who we can’t?

Whether or not we’re prepared for such a debate, anti-love biotechnology is on its way as we speak.

Dr Anna McLaughlin is an academic Neuroscientist and the Founder of Sci-translate, a digital science communication agency based in London, UK. With a PhD in Neuroscience & Psychology, MSc in Psychiatric Research and BSc in Psychological Science, she specialises in the neuroscience of wellbeing, which spans mental health, physical health, nutrition, immune function, fitness, sleep and productivity.