Scientists discover how to implant false memories

Implanting false memories could cure Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and depression. It could also make scapegoating easier, allow for witness tampering, or give those under a brutal dictatorship false patriotism. 

 

MIT researchers Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu recently made history when they successfully implanted a false memory into the mind of a mouse. The proof was a simple reaction from the rodent, but the implications are vast. They placed the furry little creature inside a metal box, and it froze, displaying a distinct fear response. The mouse was reacting as if it had received an electrical shock there, when it hadn’t at all.  


What makes it more riveting is that their success was considered a long-shot. The hypothesis was that not only could they identify those neurons associated with encoding memory, but could essentially rewrite one. Experts say that this an impressive feat which helps uncover more of the mystery of how memory operates. Though neuroscientists have considered such a possibility for years, they never thought this kind of experiment could actually work.  

This breakthrough was possible due to research out of Oxford which discovered exactly how short-term memories are transferred into long term memory. But the MIT researchers took it into an entirely new direction. Memories are actually stored in not one area, but certain groups of neurons known as engrams. Ramirez and Liu came together in 2010 and designed a new method for exploring live brains, to identify specific engrams. The neuroscientists used a newly minted technique called optogenetics, which employs lasers to stimulate genetically engineered cells designed to react to them.

Areas where the memory resides are highlighted in purple.

The scientists and their team injected a biochemical cocktail into the brains of special, genetically engineered mice. The cocktail contained a gene with a light sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin-2. This was injected into the dentate gyrus—the area in the hippocampus where memory is encoded. Then they implanted filaments into the mice’s skulls. These acted as a conduit for a laser. The researchers found they could reactivate a memory by flooding certain neurons with laser light.

In order to prove that they could identify certain engrams, they reactivated a memory associated with fear. After the experiment, the mice’s brain tissues were examined under a microscope. Those associated with a specific memory glowed green due to the injected chemical. Liu compared it to a “starry night” where you could view “individual stars.” The engram that glowed was associated with an electroshock to the foot, and so triggered the startle or fear response.

Now that they knew which engram was associated with fear, they set up an experiment to test it. After injecting the cocktail into the same region of the brain, they placed the mouse inside a metal box. This box was safe. The mouse was able to explore for 12 whole minutes with no problems. The next day, it was put in a different box but received an electric shock instead. These two boxes differed in color, shape, and scent, researchers assure. The following day, the same mouse was placed inside the safe box again, and would have remembered it as safe. But researchers activated the foot shock memory using a laser, initiating the fear response.

Networks of neurons lighting up.

Is a similar procedure conceivable for humans? According to Ramirez, “Because the proof of principle is there…the only leap left between there and humans is just technological innovation.” Today, over 20 labs around the world are building upon this research. In fact, a French team recently implanted false memories in the brains of sleeping mice. Howard Eichenbaum, the director of the Center for Neuroscience at Boston University, is going in another direction. He is working on recreating longer and larger memories, those experiences which unfold over time.

There are many positive implications such as the ability to take the bite out of or even erase those painful memories attached to PTSD, depression, and other psychiatric disorders. There may be applications for Alzheimer’s, reverse engineering memories lost to the disease. It even holds promise for those suffering from substance abuse disorder, allowing them to forget their addiction.

Even so, there are negative connotations too. As our memory is the glue which holds our identities together, wouldn’t erasing a memory, even a bad one, indelibly erase a portion of the person themselves? Though painful, our negative memories define us. Of course, those hobbled by depression or haunted by PTSD could come to see it as a saving grace. Today, scientists aim not to erase technically, at least at first, but to rewrite a memory in a manner that promotes, rather than impedes, mental health. But the potential is there. There are further implications.

A neuron associated with the fear response is illuminated.

What about implanting false memories in witnesses to change the outcome of trials? Many in the past have been convicted when they were innocent, exonerated later due to the advent of DNA testing. False memory implantation might lead to a new and ruthless form of witness tampering. Films like Inception or Eternal Sunshine could become a reality. But if you erase the memory of a bad ex from your past, do the lessons you’ve learned about love go with it?

There are implications in terms of state control and even the sovereignty of one’s own mind. Such a procedure under a totalitarian regime could manufacture false patriotism, even wipe clean the memories of revolutionaries in order to make them loyal to the state. The ability to actually do this is thought to be four to five decades away. Yet the federal research group DARPA says it is a mere four years from a brain implant capable of altering PTSD-related memories. Theoretically, such technology could be used to silence dissent.

Meanwhile, a psychology professor at New York University, Dr. Gary Marcus, has proposed inserting a microchip into the human brain to allow for a human-internet interface, making the mind a search engine as well as improving one’s memory. Perhaps you could backup files to prevent tampering. But wouldn’t it also allow a hacker to say hack your brain? An important ethical dialogue must begin now. A superstructure and strict protocol must be erected. And yet, chances are those operating outside of its boundaries may still violate it. Though this technique shows promise, strong regulation and oversight must be enacted to prevent human rights violations and miscarriages of justice.

For where we are right now on manipulating memory and the moral implications click here: 

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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