July 29, 2013
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) have developed a technique to implant false memories into the minds of laboratory rats.
Steven Ramirez, lead author of the study from MIT identified brain cells associated with specific memories and used a technique to alter the rat’s memory once it was isolated.
In principle, this experiment could be recreated on human subjects and have a similar level of success.
Ramirez hopes that this study would lay a foundation of future research that could become a therapy for emotionally disturbed individuals, treat those with emotional problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which involves the recollection of “unwanted memories”.
In the laboratory, Ramirez’ team used optogenetics which utilizes light to turn on or off brain cells with an optical fiber that is shown directly into the hippocampus (the region of the brain that controls the formation of new memories).
Using a virus to infect regions of the brain where those neurons in the hippocampus control the production of new memories. This particular virus will alter the neuron’s DNA structure to produce a sensitivity to light which allows scientists to manipulate them with the use of the optical fiber light apparatus.
According to the study: “Memories can be unreliable. We created a false memory in mice by optogenetically manipulating memory engram–bearing cells in the hippocampus. Dentate gyrus (DG) or CA1 neurons activated by exposure to a particular context were labeled with channelrhodopsin-2. These neurons were later optically reactivated during fear conditioning in a different context. The DG experimental group showed increased freezing in the original context, in which a foot shock was never delivered. The recall of this false memory was context-specific, activated similar downstream regions engaged during natural fear memory recall, and was also capable of driving an active fear response. Our data demonstrate that it is possible to generate an internally represented and behaviorally expressed fear memory via artificial means.”
Theoretically, the brain’s creation of real memories would be the same process as false ones. Further research would explain how to apply these findings to already established memory manipulation techniques.
In 2009, researchers were able to show that false memories about childhood events that never really happened were just as influential as those memories of real events. Instead of thinking of our memory systems as video recording equipment, researchers showed that this complex neural network can be manipulated which poses a danger when conceptualizing how a person can recover from “forgotten” memories.
Elisa Hurley, professor of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, has postulated the concepts in the Hollywood film, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , wherein targeted memories are erased because the patients finds them too painful to recall.
Hurley recognizes that those identified with PTSD would be candidates for such manipulation. With the use of beta-blockers, patients could have their memories erased.
Hurley said: “Beta-blockers do not cause amnesia. Rather they make memories less vivid, detailed and arousing. They lessen the emotional impact when someone is recalling upsetting events.”
Referencing a solider that would have killed civilians or committed other egregious acts while serving in the Armed Forces, the use of such a technique would benefit “types of trauma involving interpersonal violence, such as sexual violence, torture, combat stress, and genocide, emotional memories may play a crucial role in one’s moral recovery.”
Hurley suggests that “dampening emotional responses such as guilt, revulsion, and regret to someone’s participation in wrongdoing may undermine an appropriate understanding by the person of his or her moral responsibility.”
In 2010, Hurley addressed the use of memory altering drugs used on active duty soldiers to reduce the effects of PTSD which creates an unintended consequence of having those suppressed memories resurface at a later date.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) endeavored to alleviate soldiers of their unwanted memories of actions taken place during war with an experiment conducted 3 years ago that paved the way for “the possibility of manipulating those mechanisms with drugs to enhance behavioral therapy for such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Kate Farinholt, executive director of the mental health support and information group NAMI Maryland, stated that: “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.”
The general public views their memories as a transcript of events in reality that actually occurred. There is no attribution to the fact that those memories that are so heavily relied upon are able to be manipulated with little external effort because of the way in which our brain joins visualizations and sounds. They are connected just as fake memories are which can be controlled by doctored photographs shown to a subject.
Studies have shown that the power of suggestion , regardless of how improbable it is, can be enough to create a fake memory within the brain that the subject truly believes took place in the near past.
In another study, doctored images of anti-war protests taken from the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations were made to appear more violent than the actual event. Researchers gave these pictures to participants who altered their memories of the event to fit the images they were given.