A researcher is using propranolol as a treatment for romantic trauma
A researcher at the Douglas Research Centre is investigating propranolol, a medication commonly used to treat migraines, as a potential psychotherapeutic treatment for romantic trauma.
Michelle Lonergan, a PhD student in Psychiatry from McGill, is studying “attachment injury” in romantic relationships. Attachment injury occurs when a romantic partner is betrayed or abandoned through infidelity or physical or emotional abandonment during times of need. An attachment injury destroys one’s sense of security in a partner. Lonergan came across this concept through an article by psychologist Sue Johnson.
“The loss of love can have devastating psychological and physical effects,” said Lonergan. “People may fall into a depression and substance abuse, or in extreme circumstances, harm themselves or others, all in the name of love.”
The idea to use propranolol as a treatment for symptoms of romantic trauma came from Lonergan’s supervisor, Dr. Alain Brunet. Propranolol is used to treat high blood pressure, migraines, and certain anxiety disorders. At a low dose, it has few side effects besides fatigue. Brunet has used propranolol to reduce symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Given that our lab investigates a treatment designed to reduce psychological distress and symptoms of traumatic stress associated with a traumatic event, and that experiencing a betrayal can be traumatizing, I began to see where our treatment can bridge the gap and potentially help a lot of people,” said Lonergan.
Her goal is to use propranolol to reduce emotional trauma by disrupting memory reconsolidation. At the turn of the century, it was discovered that the nature of emotional memories change as they are remembered—a process known as reconsolidation. Reconsolidation enables old memories to be updated with new information, which helps us learn. Norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter, is used in this process.
Propranolol being a beta-blocker is what makes it ideal for this study, as beta-blockers are norepinephrine inhibitors. If propranolol is administered during the “reconsolidation window,” where the memory is destabilized during the process of remembering, the reconsolidation process is disrupted and the memory becomes less distressing.
The study researchers are looking for adults who have experienced romantic trauma and experience distress as a result. They hope to provide an alternative treatment to traditional psychotherapy.
The clinical trial involves six sessions and two follow-ups. Each session involves thinking about the betrayal an hour after having taken propranolol. During the first session, subjects write about the trauma in detail. During the remaining five, they read about it. Follow-ups will be done one week and three months after the clinical trial, to assess long-term effectiveness.
The trial poses little risk to subjects, Lonergan said. The process does not alter actual memories, just how the memory makes an individual feel, she said. “People still remember what happened to them, and how they felt when it happened,” said Lonergan. “The difference is that they do not have the same debilitating emotional response to the reminders that they once did.”
Mental health professionals would be able to learn of this treatment easily, and it’s also cheap. Lonergan said long-lasting benefits have already been observed in as few as six sessions, half the number of sessions typical for cognitive-behavioural therapy.
“This intervention has the potential to revolutionize the way we treat psychiatric disorders that are linked to powerful emotional memories,” said Lonergan.
Lonergan began recruiting individuals for her study in November 2015. The trial is ongoing, and she will continue to recruit subjects until October 2017.