A new study has found that hydrocortisone could accelerate the process of forgetting intrusive memories when given after a traumatic event.
A University College London research team have found that hydrocortisone (30mg), an anti-inflammatory drug, can weaken the emotion that underly painful memories, such as those experienced in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by stressful, frightening or distressing events. It can cause nightmares and feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. These symptoms can have a profound effect on day-to-day life.
The research is published in Translation Psychiatry.
Can hydrocortisone help PTSD sufferers?
The researchers used 120 healthy participants in their study with 60 taking hydrocortisone and the other 60 being given a placebo drug.
They found that the group who were taking hydrocortisone a few minutes after being shown several very upsetting videos appeared to “forget” the event more quickly compared to those who had been given a placebo drug.
Men and women responded differently to the medication
The researchers found that men and women responded differently to hydrocortisone, depending on the levels of sex hormones in their system. An example of this is that men with high levels of oestrogen seemed to have the fewest upsetting memories a week after watching the video.
In contrast, the women showcased the opposite effect. Their high levels of oestrogen appeared to make them susceptible to involuntary bad memories once treated with hydrocortisone.
Lead author, PhD candidate Vanessa Hennessy (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences), said: “Persistent distressing, involuntary or ‘intrusive’ memories are a core feature of PTSD. Unlike other psychological disorders, the onset of PTSD caused by a single trauma can reliably be traced back to the occurrence of a specific, often life-threatening event that generates long-lasting intrusive memories.
“The findings reported here build on previous studies that target the emotions that underlie involuntary memory, to reduce how often they happen and how vivid they are – whilst still leaving the ability to recall the memory voluntarily.
“Our work shows how important it is to do careful experiments with healthy people to work out whether and how a drug like hydrocortisone could work. After all, our results seem to show that there might be conditions that make the drug harmful in some people.”
The researchers are hoping that their findings can be used to help clinical researchers design targeted treatments towards men and women with PTSD. It is important to clarify that the hydrocortisone administration was only found to be effective when given to trauma patients in the hours directly following trauma or before sleep when memory is consolidated.