Health & Science

A pill that erases bad memories; The power of hand gestures; Heal sports injuries without surgery; Your memories are replaceable

A pill that erases bad memories

A common blood-pressure drug may help provide emotional relief to traumatized soldiers, crime victims, and people with phobias. Dutch researchers have discovered that the old-school blood-pressure drug propranolol has an alternate use: rewiring your memory circuits to get rid of anxieties and bad memories. The drug is a beta blocker, which not only suppresses strong physical response to stress, but also appears to retrain the brain not to react to a bad memory—and may actually weaken the memory itself. University of Amsterdam researchers gave the drug to volunteers who had learned to associate photos of a spider with a painful shock. When shown the spider photo again, they no longer had a strong startle response. “The fear response went away, which suggests the memory was weakened,” Dr. Merel Kindt tells Repeated doses of propranolol could train a person’s brain to eliminate the fear response altogether, researchers believe, effectively curing phobias. It may take years to develop a fully tested trauma treatment utilizing propranolol, Kindt says, but the potential benefits are great. Currently, she says, “millions of people suffer from emotional disorders and the relapse of fear, even after successful treatment.”

The power of hand gestures

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Just as babies crawl before they learn to walk, they use gestures as a steppingstone toward speech. Now, a study at the University of Chicago has determined that babies who use more gestures end up with bigger vocabularies once they begin to talk. Scientists have long known that kids with more educated and affluent parents enter school with better verbal skills, largely because their parents talk to them more and use more complex sentences. But what they didn’t realize is that this parent-child interaction matters just as much before the child begins to use words. Psychologists Susan Goldin-Meadow and Meredith Rowe observed children in their homes as they grew from gurgling infants to talking toddlers. They found that kids with more educated parents used nearly twice as many gestures to communicate as kids in the poorer homes. The process works like this: A baby points to his sippy cup, and a parent points, too, saying “juice.” When the kid points to his bed, the parent says “bed,” and so on. “That’s a teachable moment,” Goldin-Meadow tells Time. “Mothers are teaching the kids the word for an object.”

Heal sports injuries without surgery

Doctors are using professional athletes as guinea pigs for a promising new treatment in which a patient’s own blood is injected into damaged ligaments, tendons, and joints, says The New York Times. Before the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh Steelers Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu both received the treatment to make them healthy enough to play. The idea is actually quite simple: Doctors take some of a patient’s blood and separate it into its component parts, isolating cell fragments called platelets, which serve as the raw material for blood clots. They then inject the platelet-rich fluid into a damaged elbow, knee, shoulder, or other area. Once they’re injected, the platelets broadcast mayday signals that tell the body to send out healing cells. Since sites of injury, like elbows and knees, are typically sites where not much blood flows, the addition of platelets can produce rapid improvement in injuries that typically linger for months, says Dr. Allan Mishra of Stanford University Medical Center. “Platelet-rich plasma has the potential to revolutionize not just sports medicine but all of orthopedics,” he says. “It’s nonsurgical and uses the body’s own cells to help it heal.” Ward says his badly sprained knee healed in two weeks, instead of the usual six. “I think it really helped me,” he says.

Your memories are replaceable

If someone tortured or robbed you, would you remember his face? Most people are certain they would, but new research shows that human memories are often faulty, and are highly susceptible to influence by authority figures. Yale psychiatrist C. Andrew Morgan conducted mock prisoner-of-war interrogations on U.S. soldiers, then showed them photos of various men, using psychological tricks to encourage them to identify a man they’d never seen as their interrogator. A surprising 85 percent of the soldiers wound up identifying the wrong man. The finding supports other research by University of California psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who has shown she can easily plant false memories into the minds of study subjects. Loftus convinced some of her study volunteers that they’d gotten sick on strawberry ice cream as children, or that the character Pluto had once licked “their ears disturbingly and uncomfortably” during a trip to a Disney park. The fact that our memories are highly unreliable, especially when it comes to identifying people we’ve seen only once or twice, has major implications for the criminal justice system, Loftus says. Eyewitness identifications should carry little weight in court, she tells, especially when they are the sole source of evidence that someone committed a crime. “I believe to some extent we’re all susceptible to succumbing to false memories and having people tinker with our autobiographies,” Loftus says.

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