Is there a Truth Serum?

In a highly publicized 1994 trial, Gary Ramona received a $500,000 jury award in a suit against his daughter Holly's therapist. His was the first trial in which the parent of a recovered-memory accuser sued his daughter's therapist. Moira Johnston tells the fascinating story of the trial in "Spectral Evidence." An important component of the Ramona lawsuit was the fact that a doctor had told Holly that she would not lie if she said something after taking the drug sodium amytal.

In Medieval times, "ordeals of fire and water" were used in an effort to determine if a person was lying or telling the truth. In our own time, "truth serums" and "lie detector" machines have been used for the same purpose. However, in 1963, the United States Supreme Court decided that a truth serum-induced confession was unconstitutionally coerced. More recently, state courts have found truth serum-induced testimony to be scientifically unreliable and inadmissible.

August Piper, Jr., M.D. discussed the problems of the "truth serum" sodium amytal in a 1994 FMSF Newsletter column, reproduced below. See also: Piper, A. "'Truth serum' and 'recovered memories' of sexual abuse: A review of the evidence," Journal of Psychiatry & Law/Winter, 193, pages 447-471.

                      by August Piper Jr., M.D.

  Pontius Pilate once asked, "What is truth?"
  Two thousand years later, plaintiff and defendant, accuser and
accused, unfold their versions of truth. In our courtrooms, Pilate's
question echoes.
  A reader of this newsletter inquires:

   I have heard that sodium Amytal is a truth drug. What does that
 mean? My lawyer says that taking the drug might help my lawsuit, by
 helping me and my doctor decide what really happened to me when I was
 a child.

  The Amytal interview has been known to American physicians for about
half a century. Amytal is the trade name of a drug belonging to the
same family as Nembutal, Seconal, and Pentothal. Its generic name is
amobarbital (generic names are not capitalized). It is a barbiturate,
which means that sufficiently-large doses cause drowsiness and sleep.
  During an Amytal interview, the physician administers small amounts
of the drug, by vein, every few minutes. The procedure usually takes
about an hour.  The patient is drowsy and slurred of speech, but awake
-- the so-called "twilight state" for the duration of the interview.
Intravenous Amytal causes a feeling of relaxation, warmth, and
closeness to the interviewer; while in this state, the patient is
questioned. Other intravenous drugs, like Valium or Ativan, are
sometimes used in this kind of procedure. For our purposes, these
medicines should be considered essentially identical to IV Amytal,
because they produce these same effects on the patient.
  The amobarbital interview was very popular during the 1930's and
1940's, though at that time it was not usually performed to verify or
recover forgotten memories. Rather, doctors employed the procedure to
examine the unconscious, or to do psychotherapy (for example, to treat
"shell shock"). The dominant theory then, held by many physicians, was
that people under Amytal could not possibly lie. This theory was
reflected in the colorful name "truth serum" given to the drug.
  One characteristic of good science is a sincere attempt to disprove
its own theories. This principle was applied to the belief that people
always tell the truth under Amytal -- that is, patients were tested to
see if they could tell falsehoods during Amytal interviews.  They
could. During such interviews, could people deliberately attempt to
deceive an interviewer? They could. Could they report false or
exaggerated symptoms of psychological disorders? Again, they
could. Withhold information? Yes.
  In time, other studies revealed more information. They showed that
during Amytal administration, patients often demonstrate a distorted
sense of time, show memory disturbances, and have difficulty
evaluating and selecting thoughts. In addition, under Amytal,
patients' claims about details of their histories--events, places,
names, dates -- are untrustworthy. Further, these investigations noted
that the drug also makes patients vulnerable to either accidental or
deliberate suggestions from the interviewer. Finally, and most
importantly, patients under Amytal fail to reliably discriminate
between reality and fantasy.
  Now, I bet some readers are thinking: "Hmm. Slurred speech,
drowsiness, a feeling of warmth, distorted memory, altered time-sense.
Sounds familiar."  Cynics would say that those things happen after
someone has had "a few too many." And in this case, they would be
exactly right: intravenous Amytal creates a state similar to acute
alcohol intoxication.
  So. Having said all that, will I finally answer the reader's
  Courts have long been intensely skeptical of any efforts to
"enhance" or "refresh" the memories of participants in trials. The
above discussion shows why. The judiciary worries about interviewers
contaminating the memories of those they interview, and about the
ability of people to misrepresent truth while under Amytal. Then there
is the matter of reliability of information obtained from someone who
is acutely intoxicated. Thoughtful clinicians, supporting these
concerns of the courts, have warned that memories retrieved in an
Amytal-induced trance are likely to contain a combination of fact and
fantasy, in a mixture that cannot be accurately determined without
external verification. This point about external verification is
important. It means that statements made under Amytal must be reliably
confirmed. If they are not, they cannot be considered more truthful
than any other statements.
  In summary, there's no such thing as "truth serum," and the Amytal
interview won't help anybody decide what really happened in your
childhood.  Waste not your money, dear reader!

  August Piper Jr. M.D. is a psychiatrist in private practice in
Seattle, Washington. He is a member of the FMSF Scientific and
Professional Advisory Board. He has written a chapter in a forthcoming
book (Multiple Personality Disorder: Critical Issues and
Controversies), as well as several articles on MPD.