Scientists Are (Not) Going To Erase Your Memory!


You guys, scientists are learning to erase our memories! Everybody panic! Or … maybe not.

First, of all, let’s talk about what the scientists (Richard Huganir and Robert Clem) actually did. According to the website of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where Huganir works, the researchers did not offer Keanu Reeves a red pill and a blue pill, nor did they shine a flashing light in someone’s face after the appearance of aliens. Instead, they used mice. Bo-ring! First they gave the mice a bad memory by playing a particular tone and then shocking them with electricity. The mice started to freeze up whenever they heard the tone. But if Huganir and Clem gave the mice “therapy” (they played the tone without the shock) within a one-day window after their original mistreatment occurred, the mice quit freezing up.

So is this really “memory erasure?” Well, the scientists did find that the therapy actually eliminated specific receptors in the mice’s brains, and Huganir and Clem think there are certain drugs that might enhance the elimination of these receptors. They also say that “by recreating the context in which the memory was formed” they might be able to extend the window within which behavioral therapy is effective — and that a combination of this therapy with receptor-targeting drugs might help people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Actually, all of this sounds pretty good! A new understanding of how negative memories are formed, and a potential way to treat people for whom these memories become a serious problem — two thumbs up! And although HHMI does use the phrase “erasing memories,” we don’t really know what was going on in the mice’s subjective experience — they may well have remembered the tone-shock combo, but simply have been trained not to freak out about the tone anymore. So do we really need to go around asking various experts what would happen if we could totally just delete a memory from a human brain? Apparently we do! And it would be really bad!

Meredith Cohn of the Baltimore Sun (via LA Times) talked to Kate Farinholt of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maryland, who says,

Erasing a memory and then everything bad built on that is an amazing idea, and I can see all sorts of potential. But completely deleting a memory, assuming it’s one memory, is a little scary. How do you remove a memory without removing a whole part of someone’s life, and is it best to do that, considering that people grow and learn from their experiences?

Ok, so a little good, but mostly bad. Also on the bad-wagon is Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University:

Certainly, there may be appropriate applications. But human identity is tied into memory. It creates our distinctive personalities. It’s a troublesome idea to begin to be able to manipulate that, even if for the best of motives.

Look, I get that it’s hard to write about science. I fuck it up often enough. And I haven’t been able to get my hands on the full text of the study, so maybe the behavioral therapy Huganir and Clem employed is more memory-erasey than it seems. But from the HHMI account, it sure seems like nobody is going to be destroying anybody’s personality any time soon. So let’s give America’s Concerned Experts a break on this one, shall we?

Erasing Traumatic Memories May Soon Be Possible [Baltimore Sun, via LAT]

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