One of my favorite movies is the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a film that teaches us a lot about ourselves and our own lives. It is about a company that has the ability to map out your memories in your brain and then go in and wipe them all out. It is through the subtle shots that you see many things that only add to it, as there is an older woman with a box of stuff related to a lost pet, as they are told to bring in every item that is related to that relationship.
The whole concept is that the relationships can be forgotten and you will be happier as a result of that. That without the sadness and pain of lost love, you’ll forever be in a blissful state, and able to move on from that.
In the film, they show Joel each item, and his brain automatically maps that item to the memory of it. Then, they have you take a sleeping pill of some kind when you go to bed the night that it’s going to happen, and while you’re asleep, they come over to your house, and hook their equipment up, putting some strange looking thing on your head, and they systematically erase the mapped out memories bit by bit.
Now it looks like that science is becoming a reality.
There are researchers in Brooklyn that have accomplished memory erasing by messing with a single substance in the brain. They claim that it could help you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, and even a bad habit. And they did all of this with a single dose of an experimental drug, which is delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, including emotional associations, spatial knowledge and motor skills.
It blocks the activity of a substance in the brain that helps it to retain learned information. If it were enhanced, it could help fight dementias and other such memory problems.
Research has only been conducted on animals, but the scientists believe that it’s likely to work almost identically in people.
There are many questions that come along with this. What vital memories might be lost? What learned behaviors might be important for other things? Will this result in a drug that can enhance memory? If so, what are the side-effects?
The substance in the brain that is responsible for these memories is called PKMzeta. The molecule was present and activated in cells when they were triggered by a neighboring neuron.
The researchers brought in people from all corners of the globe with different skill sets. From Europe, India, Asia and Grand Rapids. They would work 12 hour shifts, in different aspects of this study, which involved mice and rats.
The used pre-established techniques to teach animals strong memories for where things are located. They would move around a small chamber to avoid a mild electric shock to their feet. Days, and even months, later, the animals quickly remember how to avoid the shock.
But when they have the drug injected directly into their brain, they are back to square one, almost immediately. The drug is called ZIP, and it interferes with PKMzeta.
More studies have followed, including a single dose of ZIP causing rats to forget a strong disgust for a taste that had made them sick three months prior.
From the New York Times:
“This possibility of memory editing has enormous possibilities and raises huge ethical issues,” said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist at Harvard. “On the one hand, you can imagine a scenario in which a person enters a setting which elicits traumatic memories, but now has a drug that weakens those memories as they come up. Or, in the case of addiction, a drug that weakens the associations that stir craving.”
Researchers have already tried to blunt painful memories and addictive urges using existing drugs; blocking PKMzeta could potentially be far more effective.
Yet any such drug, Dr. Hyman and others argue, could be misused to erase or block memories of bad behavior, even of crimes. If traumatic memories are like malicious stalkers, then troubling memories — and a healthy dread of them — form the foundation of a moral conscience.
For those studying the biology of memory, the properties of PKMzeta promise something grander still: the prospect of retooling the engram factory itself. By 2050 more than 100 million people worldwide will have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, scientists estimate, and far more will struggle with age-related memory decline.
“This is really the biggest target, and we have some ideas of how you might try to do it, for instance to get cells to make more PKMzeta,” Dr. Sacktor said. “But these are only ideas at this stage.”
A substance that improved memory would immediately raise larger social concerns, as well. “We know that people already use smart drugs and performance enhancers of all kinds, so a substance that actually improved memory could lead to an arms race,” Dr. Hyman said.
There are many questions that remain, including the lifespan of a molecule, and how many memories are attached to a single molecule. It appears that we’re on the cusp of something that is very dangerous, and hopefully the memory erasing portion is never released to the public. Strengthening memory in the elderly is something that I feel excites me more than the ability to forget something that made me into who I am today.
Forgetting life lessons could alter who someone is, and create someone that is either more or less of a ‘risk-taker’ than they were before. Who knows what kind of people this could create? I’m not sure I want to know.
-via The New York Times