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“Eternal Sunshine” Gas Could Erase Memories That Cause PTSD

Researchers think xenon gas could provide a solution for people suffering from emotional trauma.

Screencap from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Turns out, the only thing that’s sci-fi about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is its insistence that true love is real (kidding, kidding). Last summer, researchers at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital of Harvard Medical School, published a study in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE about the use of xenon gas for “erasing” emotional memories. In a recent interview with VICE, Dr. Edward G. Meloni, an assistant psychologist at McLean Hospital who authored the study, says that their research could help treat sufferers of Post-Traumautic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“Research shows that xenon gas can remove the emotional charge of a traumatic memory, but not the memory itself. The chance that memories disappear completely is pretty slim,” said Meloni to VICE.

Meloni’s tests on rats revealed that the xenon gas was capable of muting or erasing the emotions associated with certain memories. The rats were conditioned with a fear response when confronted with certain images. After being exposed to the xenon gas, the rats no longer experienced fear when shown those same images. For PTSD patients, this means that the trauma or fear associated with certain memories that trigger PTSD could be removed. Apparently, doctors in Serbia already use xenon gas treatment to help addicts “forget” their addictions.

If you’re concerned with the unethical implications of this kind of treatment, your worries are not totally unfounded. VICE spoke with a professor at the University of Groningen who researchs human memory, Douwe Draaisma, who said a forgetting gas could make prosecuting crimes difficult.

"In ethical literature you often get the example of the 'forgetting pill'—a pill that erases your last memory. Suppose a rape victim takes one of those pills, then the consequences for the perpetrator could be less severe," Draaisma told VICE. "Or even worse: the rapist could force the victim to take the pill. That is one of the dilemmas that treatments like these bring up."

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