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Nitrous oxide may reduce the effect of traumatic memories
Posted in Research, Treatment

A public service announcement on trauma effects could mirror the drug ads of the 1990s. You’d see a close up of a nonstick pan, and the voiceover would narrate, “This is your brain. This is your brain after a traumatic event with nitrous oxide treatment.” The egg would glide easily onto a plate, sunny-side-up.

According to University College London’s latest research, nitrous oxide provided after a traumatizing event may help prevent distressing memories from “sticking” in the brain.

Nitrous oxide for pain

Nitrous, NOS or laughing gas is what’s given in small doses as anesthesia to some dental surgery patients. The compound is used as an accompaniment to other anesthetics, and its permitted recreational use was only recently overturned in the U.K. in 2015.

Users enjoy its exhilarating or silly temporary effects, but other symptoms include:

  • Tunnel vision
  • Spatial and time disorientation
  • Throbbing or pulsating audio/visual hallucinations
  • Lowered vocal pitch
  • Increased pain threshold
  • Deep mental connections

It’s the last two side effects that researchers were interested in applying to victims of trauma.

Stephanie J. Snow, Ph.D., is a professor of medical history at the University of Manchester and author of “Blessed Days of Anaesthesia”  She writes about the paradigm shift from experiencing pain in all its hues as proof of life to mitigating pain experiences as a means of promoting quality of life.

She says that in pre-anesthetic medical era of the early 19th century, pain was understood to be the body’s safety net.” “If you were having an operation and you felt pain that was actually a good thing because the pain was a trigger to the body to maintain its vitality. If you had a patient on the operating table and they sort of cried out and writhed in pain, that was good, it meant that they were alive, there was that vitality there.”

Snow points out the shift in perception. “From the 1820s onwards, you get the sense that causing anything pain, even animals, is against the basic impulse of a civilized society… Taking away pain is actually a blessing.”

Fast-forward to the 21st century: taking away emotional pain and psychological damage is exactly what researchers aim to do.

Nitrous oxide’s effects on unpleasant memories

Researchers had 50 participants watch scenes from a movie described as violently cruel. Thereafter, half the participants were asked to inhale nitrous oxide for half an hour. Those participants experienced a faster decline in distressing memories than others who breathed normal air. Distressing memories faded dramatically over the days following the film for those given nitrous oxide, while the decline was slow and steady for the others.

However, to the degree that a person feels disconnected from a traumatic event correlates to the intensity of disturbing intrusive memories and possibly post-traumatic stress. One hiccup researchers encountered was that nitrous is known to induce dissociative experiences in some people. Preliminary studies haven’t distinguish ahead of time whether nitrous will prevent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in a person or worsen trauma.

The nonstick brain

Scientist in the study explain information the brain receives that induces a strong emotional response is “tagged” for storage by N-Methyl D-Aspartate (NMDA) receptors. These are then filed for long-term storage when asleep.

Nitrous oxide blocks NMDA receptors, which likely explains why witnessed information doesn’t really “stick” to the brain, when nitrous is inhaled shortly thereafter, as seen in study participants who inhaled the nitrous oxide.

Although further research is needed, the study’s lead author believes people who end up in an ambulance have come off some form of psychological trauma, and nitrous oxide could reduce the shock.

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About the author

Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at

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