Propranolol, a beta-blocker that cuts heart rate, could silence the disastrous events on repeat in the minds of millions of people with PTSD.
The boom of the plane hitting the towers, the gray pieces floating in the air, and the people jumping out were parts of the scene replayed in physician Margaret Dessau's mind for years after the 9/11 disaster. She remembers looking out her apartment window to see a "guy with this white towel, and he's waving it." After he jumps, she hears children scream from a nearby school.
Nearly 10 years later, she described these memories as part of her post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to writer Anemona Hartacollis for the New York Times. Many PTSD sufferers replay disastrous events as memories that intrude on everyday life -- intrusive memories -- or in nightmares. They complain of not sleeping or concentrating. They may overreact to loud noises, become excessively alert and hypervigilant, and avoid reminders of the disaster. Dessau, who witnessed the attacks from her window, avoids looking at the skyline.
Intrusive memories are only part of a larger picture that often includes a sense of isolation, hopelessness, anger, and emotional numbness.
These symptoms have made the news for years, but less is known about effective treatment. If disturbing memories can be calmed by drug-enhanced treatment, millions of people who suffer from PTSD might benefit. This affects millions of adults in the U.S., including 9/11 survivors and combat veterans. Now Dr. Alain Brunet, a clinical psychologist at McGill University in Montreal, and his collaborators are halfway through a clinical trial to see if propranolol, a beta-blocker that reduces heart rate and blood pressure -- and has been proven to calm musicians facing stage fright -- can also reduce the strength of long-standing traumatic memories.