The ability to erase painful memories has been seen on science fiction and Hollywood blockbusters for decades, but now forgetting an unhappy love affair or a traumatic accident could soon be as easy as popping a pill.
Scientists have discovered a drug that helps numb the pain of bad memories by flooding the mind with feelings of security and safety.
To test the effectiveness of the drug, researchers created bad memories by giving mice electric shocks while a loud noise was played. Over time, the creatures learned to associate the sound with the shock, and hearing the noise alone was enough to make them freeze. But when they were given a drug called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, they lost their fear.
BDNF is naturally produced in the brain, and experiments showed that rats with a shortage of the compound struggled to overwrite bad memories. Failure to overwrite fear is thought to contribute to many psychological problems.
"This work supports the idea that medications could be developed to augment the effects of BDNF, providing opportunities for pharmaceutical treatment of anxiety disorders," said Dr Thomas Insel of the National Institute of Mental Health.
The researchers, from the University of Puerto Rico, will now look into the possibility of creating such a pill.
The technique could one day, be used to cure phobia sufferers, help soldiers recover from the horrors of battle or allow accident victims to put their trauma behind them.