Bye Bye Bad Memories

Scientists are testing new biochemical techniques to 'erase' unwanted memories from the brain.
Scientists are testing new biochemical techniques to ‘erase’ unwanted memories from the brain.

You may not be able to erase the memory of bad relationships yet, but one day soon you may be able to kick that pesky meth habit with selective memory erasing technology.

Science constantly reminds us of how pliable our brains are. Whether its studies of addiction, memory, or identity, we are learning more and more about the inner workings of our brains—and perhaps our minds. But at the same time, we may be venturing into dangerous territories in which we presume to understand the mind—at least from a scientific standpoint—much better than we actually do, to our own detriment.

A scientific study published in September by the Scripps Research Institute claims to have selectively erased ‘unwanted’ memories while leaving benign memories intact. In rats, the researchers were able to block memory formation associated with objects or behaviors that trigger methamphetamine addiction, in effect eliminating withdrawal symptoms. It appears that methamphetamine-related memory formation is particularly fragile, which means memories associated with the chemical are easier to block than other types of memory formation (though the researchers are unsure why). Scientists from USC have previously performed similar experiments on marine snails, but rats obviously represent a much more complex–and human like–palette to work with.

It’s a far cry from selectively erasing (or for that matter, implanting) memories in human subjects, but the potential unintended consequences of such a procedure are many. The researchers state that no other memories appeared to be affected in the rats, implying that their personal ‘identities’ remained intact, simply minus the bad drug-associated ones. But how do you know for sure that absolutely no other memory-creating processes were affected? With such complex neural pathways and chemical interactions in mammals, how could such a procedure be completely isolated?

Obviously I am not an expert in the field, so my concerns are based on conjecture—perhaps it really is possible to remove negative memories in isolation, and if so, it surely could have therapeutic uses. The authors suggest using such procedures in the future for things like post-traumatic stress disorder. Using a memory-erasing process rather than long-term drug therapy may indeed be a superior option for a number of reasons, assuming nothing goes wrong.

I just wonder whether these types of technologies will follow the path of prescription drugs, in which industry decides that the few (scarcely) tested benefits far outweigh the myriad of potential side effects and long-term unknown effects on the body. Even if the scientists performing this initial study have the best of intentions, once such procedures are bought out by the medical or pharmaceutical industry, the motives typically turn to financial bottom lines and little else.

Nevertheless, from a purely scientific standpoint (i.e., in terms of what we learn about ourselves and the world), the idea that we can affect how our brain responds to various memory triggers by turning chemical cues on and off is admittedly fascinating, if not disconcerting. An escalation of such studies, in which we tinker with the brain’s memory creating functions from a microbiological standpoint, is nothing less than a manifestation of our indelible human curiosity—that irresistible urge to press the red button—just to see what happens.

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