Photo: Still from “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
If it sounds like something out of a movie that’s because science fiction is now becoming science fact. Neuroscientists from the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and McGill University have developed a method to selectively erase memories from the mind—recalling the plot of 2004 film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In a paper recently published in Current Biology, the scientists reveal that they have developed a method to wipe certain memories from sea slug neurons. They believe the procedure can be applies to human brains as well.
Neuroscientists believe that memories form at neural synapses, the space between neurons where electrical impulses are passed back and forth. Manipulation of the synapses can both change and weaken memories.
The scientists have identified protein kinase M molecules (PKM) as a central feature of memory formation, which can be activated and amplified by extreme stimulation, such as a traumatic event. A second protein, known as KIBRA, protects the PKM, enabling the brain to keep the memory alive long after the event has passed. The researchers discovered that creating a disruption to either the PKM or KIBRA proteins results in a partial or complete erasure of the selected memory.
The team notes that there are two types of memories stores in the brain: associative and non-associative memories. In the paper, Samuel Schacher, a professor of neuroscience at CUMC explains the distinction: Imagine your walking through a dark alley in a dangerous neighborhood and you get violently mugged. During or immediately following the assault, you see a mailbox. Now, both dark alleys and mailboxes can trigger your fears.
Schacher identifies the dark alley as an associative memory, and recognizes the fear is well placed, whereas the mailbox becomes non-associative memory, and fear-based responses can create a new set of problems. Schacher believe it could be helpful to erase non-associative memories.
The neuroscientists ran experiments on Aplysia, a sea slug commonly used in research because of its simple neural system. During the tests, the team discovered that associative and non-associative memories exist separately in the same neuron, and therefore could be directly targeted for erasure.
The researchers believe that these experiments can ultimately be helpful for people living with PTSD and extreme anxiety, as well as addiction. However, the ethical issues of altering memory loom large over the entire undertaking. What could happen if such practices fell into the wrong hands—be it malicious or simply incompetent?
Perhaps we do not need to be concerned just yet. Several years ago, researchers at UCLA Integrative Center for Learning and Memory conducted a similar experiment several years ago and discovered that the erased memories continued to exist “covertly.” These scientists believe that long-term memory can be resistant to the current experiments to manipulate it.
Nature, it seems, triumphs once again. But never discount the will of the West to try to dominate the natural order of things…
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.