‘Psychological kevlar’ and the burden of remembering war

I just read a fascinating piece by Clayton Dach, America’s Chemically Modified 21st Century Soldiers, on Alternet. Although there’s a sense in which Mr. Dach jumps to some of the worst possible outcomes when he looks at technology in the pipeline, on the whole, it’s a pretty well thought and concerned-but-not-hysterical account of some of the technology being brought to bear on soldiers, including the possibility of removing humans further from the ‘loop’ in combat decisions. I’m less interested with the latter — the robot warriors angle — not only because I think it’s been done better in science fiction movies, but also because I think it’s simply a more remote technology than some of the pharmaceutical work he discusses.

In particular, I found the discussion of ‘psychological kevlar’ to be interesting for neuroanthropology:

In the U.S., where roughly two-fifths of troops returning from combat deployments are presenting serious mental health problems, PTSD has gone political in form of the Psychological Kevlar Act, which would direct the Secretary of Defense to implement “preventive and early-intervention measures” to protect troops against “stress-related psychopathologies.”

Proponents of the “Psychological Kevlar” approach to PTSD may have found a silver bullet in the form of propranolol, a 50-year-old beta-blocker used on-label to treat high blood pressure, and off-label as a stress-buster for performers and exam-takers. Ongoing psychiatric research has intriguingly suggested that a dose of propranolol, taken soon after a harrowing event, can suppress the victim’s stress response and effectively block the physiological process that makes certain memories intense and intrusive. That the drug is cheap and well tolerated is icing on the cake.

With PTSD so prevalent among soldiers, can it be better treated, even if that means blocking the formation of traumatic memories? Daniel did a piece on PTSD rates in soldiers in April, Invisible Wounds of War, and he discussed a RAND Corporation estimate that treatment of soldiers with PTSD would cost ‘6.2 billion dollars in the first two years after returning from deployment.’ (Daniel also provided links to a number of articles on Iraq and its psychological effects in Wednesday Round Up #7.) The potential to use drugs to stop the development of PTSD, even if it also blocks normal memory formation, raises a number of ethical and moral questions as well as some interesting neuroanthropological ones.

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