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Can You Cure Heartbreak? These Canadian Scientists Are Working On It

Rather than erasing bad memories, the treatment offers a form of clarity.
A felt red heart that's torn down the middle on a deep blue background (Photo: iStock)

Breakups can be traumatic. That’s the thesis behind plenty of enduring pop songs, prime time soap operas and former diary entries from yours truly. In the 2004 Michel Gondry film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, characters go so far as to wipe them from their memory.

The trauma of breakups was also the impetus behind a recent scientific study out of the University of Ottawa. The study looked at people who were experiencing adjustment disorders following romantic betrayals, such as infidelity and sudden abandonment, and how we might be able to counter our bodies’ responses to that trauma.

An adjustment disorder is, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), different from post-traumatic stress disorder, but it can manifest similarly in the body. “In order to have a diagnosis of PTSD, you have to have experienced a trauma,” says Dr. Michelle Lonergan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa who worked on the study. While colloquially trauma can refer to a myriad of incidents, the DSM defines it as an event that involves a “life-threatening experience.” Adjustment disorders, meanwhile, are defined as the development of emotional or behavioural symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor. A person waking up to discover that their partner of five years has left them might not threaten their life, but they’re likely going to feel the aftereffects of that event for quite some time.

As the research team sought participants for the study, they didn’t focus on official diagnoses. Instead, participants were screened through a clinical interview. To qualify, participants had to have experienced a betrayal event such as infidelity or sudden abandonment within the context of a monogamous, long-term relationship of at least six months. They also completed a self-reported survey that is often used to screen participants for PTSD. The survey asked participants to rank how extreme they experienced certain symptoms (“I had trouble concentrating,” or “pictures of the betrayal popped in my mind”). A score of 33 or above was a strong indicator of a probable diagnosis of PTSD; a score of 37 or above is high enough to suppress the immune system’s functioning. Despite not fitting the DSM’s criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, many participants still experienced its symptoms. Of the 61 people surveyed at the beginning of the study, the mean score was 51.25.

When the body is confronted with stress, it releases a hormone called noradrenaline, which triggers a person’s fight-or-flight response. It can also make a person remember emotionally significant events in detail. (This is why, notes Lonergan, you can likely still remember where you were on September 11, 2001, but not what you had for lunch three weeks ago.) When people recall a traumatic memory, this stress response is reactivated. Every time that memory is triggered, it’s reconsolidated from your long-term memory back into short-term memory, bringing with it a surge of noradrenaline.

For this study, participants took the medication propranolol an hour before weekly treatments, which blocked the production of noradrenaline in the brain. They then wrote a detailed account of their romantic betrayal in the first-person present tense, with a focus on the emotional memory and the physical stress reactions they experienced. Four weekly sessions followed in which participants would take a dose of propranolol, then read the narrative out loud to their treatment provider, reliving their romantic betrayals in detail.

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“Propranolol taken by itself doesn’t really do anything except lower your heart rate and blood pressure; thousands of people take it every day for medical reasons and those people are not immune to trauma,” says Dr. Longergan. “We think it’s the specific combination of taking propranolol one hour prior to reactivating the horrible memory that could lead to a reduction in symptoms.”

Results were measured by weekly completions of the self-reported survey throughout the study. After the first week of treatment, the mean score had dropped to 40.28 (a significant drop, though still high enough to cause immune suppressing outcomes). By the time a post-treatment survey was undertaken following the five weeks of treatment, the mean score was 19.86. Symptoms of intrusion (for instance, the inability to stop replaying the event), avoidance (like avoiding any reminders of the event) and hypervigilance (living in constant fear that a similar event will reoccur) had all drastically improved.

In Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Joel (played by Jim Carrey) learns about a scientific procedure that will allow him to remove all memories of ex-girlfriend Clementine (played by Kate Winslet) following a contentious breakup. The procedure works, but the film presents it as a cautionary tale: erasing bad memories means erasing a part of yourself. Tongue-in-cheek reporting on the University of Ottawa study has had fun comparing the experimental treatment to Gondry’s fantastical movie: “Would you take a pill to forget your toxic ex?” one magazine asks. “We didn’t erase anything,” says Dr. Lonergan. “We didn’t remove people or events. What we’re doing is we’re turning a trauma memory into just another bad memory.” The pain isn’t minimized, the lessons are still learned, but the physical symptoms no longer take control of the participants’ lives. In other words, it’s not science fiction; it’s just therapy.

In fact, rather than erasing bad memories, the treatment offers a form of clarity, giving the participants a label and an explanation to make sense of what they’ve gone through. “When I asked my participants, ‘Before you participated in our survey, did you think you were experiencing trauma?’ all of them said no,” says Lonergan. “They said, ‘I knew I couldn’t function, I knew nobody wanted to listen to me whine anymore, but trauma?’ When you provide them with a framework to understand their experience, it can be very validating.”

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