WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Imagine being able to forget memories at the flick of a switch, and now imagine the impact that would have on your life, good or bad. As scientists unravel the mysteries of the brain one day this will become science fact.
One thing that many people forget to remember about the human brain is that it’s something that scientists call “Plastic,” and no, I’m not referring to the material, I’m referring to the brain’s malleability, and it’s ability to be moulded, and re-configured almost at will, and memories, and our ability to mess around with them, for example, to help drug addicts forget they were ever addicted to anything, is an example of just how plastic the brain can be.
Memories, especially traumatic, painful and anxiety causing ones, can be a person’s worst enemy because, depending on the event and how we remember it, they can paralyse us and get us to change our behaviour in ways that, to most other people, seems illogical. Afraid of flying, for example, because you had a bad experience? Or maybe you’re having trouble adapting to civilian life after the army and jump every time a car backfires?
That’s memories for you…
So what if there was a way to forget traumatic memories? And if there was a way then should people be given the option to take up the treatment? While the answer to both of these questions is up for debate in the meantime we can start to come to terms with the idea that one day we will be able to selectively erase a person’s worst memories on demand.
According to research recently published in the journal Current Biology, a team of neuroscientists from the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and McGill University have discovered that, by deactivating certain proteins in the brain, it’s possible to make a person forget specific memories to the point that his or her brain becomes totally incapable of recalling that memory.
The approach works by blocking one or both of these proteins in the brain – Protein Kinase M molecules (PKM) which play a huge role in forming memories that can be triggered by external stimuli; or KIBRA proteins which protect PKM and ensure they are constantly active. Together, it turns out, these proteins help to keep a memory alive, and that disrupting either one results in partial or complete memory loss. But that’s just the beginning.
The researchers point out that there are two types of memories – Associative and Non-associative. Associative memories relate directly to an incident, while non-associative memories relate to something incidental.
As exemplified by Professor Samuel Schacher (PhD), one of the study’s lead authors, it’s like being mugged in a dark alley, then seeing a mailbox at the same time as the attack. Being afraid of dark alleys is an associative memory because it directly links the dark alley with the assault, and in a way it can be a good memory to have because it might make you more cautious of dark alleys.
On the other hand, being afraid of mailboxes is a non-associative memory. It can trigger memories that help you remember being mugged, but it doesn’t really help in any way because there’s just no sense in staying away from mailboxes to avoid being victimised, right? This is the type of memory that the research team believes will be beneficial to forget, and by deleting this trigger, a person won’t have to experience unnecessary anxiety, but, similarly, they will still be able to stay alert about lessons gained from past important, albeit awful, memories.
So far, researchers have been able to demonstrate that they can erase both associative and non-associative memories using an electrical shock to disrupt the PKM molecule in their animal test subject, which in this case was the humble sea slug, chosen for the experiment because of its relatively simple nervous system, and their next step is figuring out which proteins will trigger partial memory erasure, and which ones will cause total memory erasure. And by partial, the researchers mean the memory can still be accessed or recalled if needed, and by total, they mean wiping out the memory completely – with no possible way whatsoever to bring it back.
While total is only a prospect for now there’s already skepticism about the ethical and moral implications of creating such a treatment – as one of the team members, Wayne Sossin, so aptly put it, our memories are a vital part of our identity, and erasing one or more of those memories would raise issues. It would almost be equivalent to changing one’s personality or removing something that makes a person unique.
Still, it also can’t be denied that there are potential benefits that can be gained from having this “power” to kind of manipulate one’s memories. As the authors noted, it could help in fighting debilitating conditions like severe anxiety disorder, PTSD and even some forms of addiction.
Getting back to reality, however, there’s the matter of the experiment having only been proven to work in slugs so far, and making it work in humans is a totally different ball game because our brains are much, much more complicated. But the seed has been sown, and if a safe and effective memory erasing procedure can eventually be developed, then for some people it’s going to be a brand new world – literally, especially for those who choose to have certain memories of theirs deleted forever. On the flip side though it could also be argued that if we can use the procedure to erase memories then one day the same procedure might also help people who suffer from memory loss and other cognitive conditions.
Now, what was I writing about again?