By Emma Fiala
McGill University associate professor of psychiatry, Dr. Alain Brunet, embarked on the monumental task of making 60 people forget something—and succeeded.
Over four to six sessions, volunteers read aloud from a typed script they had composed themselves—a first-person account of their breakup, with as many emotional details as possible—while under the influence of propranolol, a common and inexpensive blood pressure pill.
The point being to reactivate those traumatic memories and all of the difficult emotions they include.
Participants were then asked questions during the sessions—how did you feel; how do you feel now; is your memory different from last week—to judge whether the strength of their memories were decreasing due to memory reactivation while taking propranolol, as the researchers posited, or not.
Full results of the study have been submitted to a journal, according to the National Post; however, the Post also reports that Dr. Brunet has been hesitant to discuss the results due to the sheer speed and success of erasing specific memories.
The 30 participants “just couldn’t believe that we could do so much in such a small amount of time,” Brunet explained, adding:
“They were able to turn the page. That’s what they would tell us—‘I feel like I’ve turned the page. I’m no longer obsessed by this person, or this relationship’.”
So why is Dr. Brunet so hesitant to share the news about his own breakthrough? Well, it turns out the idea of entirely wiping out unpleasant memories is quite unsettling to him. The ability, on the cellular level, to search for and destroy specific brain cells associated with specific memories is “not going to come from my lab,” Brunet explained.
Ethically speaking, Brunet says that “as long as only one choice exists right now, and it’s toning down a memory, we feel on very solid and comfortable ground,” rather than having the ability to erase such an integral aspect of what makes us who we are. However, others are working on what Dr. Brunet won’t.
Brunet asks, “if one day you had two options—I can tone down your memory, or I can remove it altogether, from your head, from your mind—what would you choose?” Good question.
Such an ability may bring to mind imaginative, shocking, and sometimes horrifying fictional stories like that of Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984, a room in which every citizen must visit to face their worst fears and phobias, in hopes of conquering it—and ultimately accepting Big Brother—in the end. No longer is the reality of altering memories something left to science fiction.
“If you could erase the memory of the worst day of your life, would you,” Elizabeth Phelps and Stefan Hofmann ask in the journal Nature. And what constitutes a memory that is worth removing?
Through the theory of memory reconsolidation, we are inching closer and closer to the day when we may be able to edit, dull, or prevent memories from even becoming memories in the first place by simply taking a pill to block the synaptic changes needed in the brain immediately following, or even years after, an event is experienced.
According to Dr. Brunet, when we remember a memory, a two to five hour widow then opens in which that same memory becomes “lability.” It is during that time that a memory can be modified before being put back into storage in the brain.
So what does the medication, propranolol, do during this process? According to Brunet, it leaves that unlocked memory somewhat free by interfering with the proteins needed to put it back where it belongs.
“Memory is dynamic,” Boston University neuroscientist Steve Ramirez says.
When we recall a memory, we have the ability to add information to it, sort of like we are clicking “save as” on a text document or pulling out an old piece of art and adding a little color where it looked like something was missing. If we continue to do this over and over, we may end up with something that barely looks like the original event or first memory of that event.
Thankfully, for those who fear a nefarious usage of this tweaking of our memories, like something straight out of 1984, altering memories on a mass scale is easier said than done. Because of the way our brains work, there isn’t simply one area labeled “memory storage” where we file each memory as we make them and to where they neatly return after recall.
Instead, our memories are scattered throughout the brain. Even bits and pieces of the same memory are found in the different parts of the brain associated with processing what those things were—the memory of what we saw, what we heard, what we smelled, and how we felt are all stored in different places.
Of memory recall, Ramirez explained:
Right now, there are a lot of memories that are asleep in your brain. If I asked you, ‘what did you do last night?’, that memory just woke up. How did that happen? You just did that effortlessly in, like, 500 milliseconds. And yet we don’t know how that process works.
So we certainly can’t be on the verge of completely erasing memories if we don’t even know how they work in the first place, can we?
Well, thanks to Ramirez, some other researches, and a whole lot of mice, we’re getting closer to understanding, and therefore altering, that process. As previously reported by the Mind Unleashed, these researchers basically figured out how to implant memories into mice by reverse engineering a memory.
According to the research, “memory is coded by patterns of neural activity in distinct circuits. Therefore, it should be possible to reverse engineer a memory by artificially creating these patterns of activity in the absence of a sensory experience.”
The goal here, according to Ramirez, is to overwrite the bad memories with good ones. “In depression, there is a bias toward negative thinking,” Ramirez said. “Maybe we need to tackle these kinds of disorders from all angles,” instead of with the same medication we’ve been using for years, with little advancement since the 1970s.
Even still, simply the talk of altering such a big part of what makes us us is understandably unsettling. While the idea has clear and obvious clinical applications, it takes only a bit of imagination to think where advancements like this could lead us if they fall into the wrong hands. And what if we can’t remember whose hands this power fell into?
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