Laughing gas, formally known as nitrous oxide, is one of the most common party recreational substances used by young individuals to induce a state of euphoria. Many teenagers fill balloons with this substance and inhale this gas from the balloons at parties and music festivals. In the medical world, nitrous oxide is commonly used by dentists and anesthesiologists as an adjunct to anesthesia. A recent study performed at the University College London discovered that “laughing gas” can actually help suppress intrusive and unwanted memories, a common symptom seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Permanent memories disrupted
Fifty participants enrolled in the study; half of them received nitrous oxide after watching horrific and violent scenes from a movie. As with most individuals, involuntarily intrusive memories are very common after watching scenes of rape and violence. The group that was administered the “laughing gas” reported a sharp decline by 50 percent in the intrusive memories within one day and even a steeper decline over the next week. The group that received the placebo reported a more gradual decline, but the intrusive and violent memories still lingered over time. The study’s results showed that laughing gas can aid in unwanted memories and possibly even PTSD.
Although the authors do not have all the answers as to why nitrous oxide can suppress memories, they believe that nitrous oxide disrupts the process to form permanent memories, the BBC reported.
The role of emotions
Forming and retrieving memories is an extremely complicated mechanism that is still heavily researched. Episodic memory is a type of long-term memory. Episodic memory represents memories that are associated with personal experiences and emotions, and relate to specific events in time. It allows one to think back into time to remember an event that took place at a specific time. If these emotional memories are important enough, which often they are because emotions are involved, they are tagged for long-term memory storage. According to the study, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors are necessary to process memories into the long-term filing cabinet in our brains. Nitrous oxide blocks NMDA receptors and, therefore, can potentially have an active role in preventing long-term memory formation.
The study also revealed that those individuals who felt more dissociated after watching the violent movie scenes had more frequent intrusive memories. Feelings of dissociation or detachment can also be induced by inhaling nitrous oxide, so laughing gas may be a double-edged sword for the treatment of PTSD. Individuals with PTSD have recurring unwanted thoughts related to the past trauma as well as feelings of dissociation. Laughing gas can help prevent the unwanted thoughts but may induce feelings of dissociation, so this treatment could be a gamble. Regardless, more research is needed before laughing gas can be considered a treatment.
The Sovereign Health Group is a leading behavioral health treatment provider with locations across the United States that treat people with addiction, mental health disorders including PTSD, and co-occurring conditions. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at the Sovereign Health Group and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.