, Volume 135, Issue 1, pp 27-36

First online:

Differentiating the effects of centrally acting drugs on arousal and memory: an event-related potential study of scopolamine, lorazepam and diphenhydramine

  • H. V. CurranAffiliated withClinical Health Psychology, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK Fax (+44)171/916-1989
  • , P. PooviboonsukAffiliated withSiriraj Hospital, Bangkok, Thailand
  • , J. A. DaltonAffiliated withInstitute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK
  • , M. H. LaderAffiliated withInstitute of Psychiatry, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


The degree to which apparent amnesic effects of various centrally acting drugs are secondary to their effects on arousal remains a contentious issue. The present study uses two methods to dissociate memory and arousal effects of the cholinergic antagonist, scopolamine (SP), and the GABA-A/benzodiazepine receptor agonist, lorazepam (LZ). First, it compared their effects to those of an antihistamine, diphenhydramine (DPh), to provide an active control for arousal reduction. Second, it used the same measure – event-related potentials (ERPs) – as as a parallel index of both the arousal and cognitive effects of the drugs. Fifty participants were allocated to one of five parallel treatment groups (0.6 mg SP; 2 mg LZ; 25, 50 mg DPh; placebo). ERPs were recorded during a continuous word recognition task as well as during an “oddball” task. SP, LZ and 50 mg DPh produced a similar profile of effects on certain indices of arousal and on early components of ERPs. However, SP and LZ (but not DPh) produced marked impairments of episodic memory, and this pattern was similar to that on later components of ERPs. Memory impairments by SP and LZ were highly significant on retention in the continuous recognition task and further, no drug effects were found on response bias. Subsequent free recall was similarly very impaired by SP and LOR but not by the antihistamine. We conclude that benzodiazepines and anticholinergic drugs both reduce arousal and induce amnesia, but these effects are not interdependent. Our findings provide strong evidence for a dissociation between the effects on episodic memory and on arousal of these centrally acting compounds.

Key words Benzodiazepines Anticholinergics Antihistamines Memory ERPs Sedation