Memory-Erasing Drug Could Eliminate Severe Emotional Disorders — Is There a Downside?

Thanks to modern brain imaging technology, researchers have been able to discover how memory works, and how to manipulate it. 

Imagine you are a PTSD sufferer. Perhaps you saw your buddies get ripped apart by an IED on the battlefield. Or you are the victim of a terrible rape. The memory of this traumatic event haunts you. You can’t sleep or concentrate. You get panic attacks in normal situations. Your appetite isn’t the best and you find yourself at times irritable, withdrawn, depressed, and angry. Medications don’t seem to work. Instead, they just make you into a walking zombie. Your employment or studies are affected, if you can even keep up with things at all.

There are certain therapies that may be helpful, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). But someday, clinicians may be able to wipe that traumatic memory from your psyche, giving you a clean slate and evaporating symptoms—the emotional residue of reliving the experience over and over. We think of memory as something static, like an archive. All the documents are placed neatly inside, immovable and immutable. Instead, researchers say memory is malleable and changes each time a person recalls it.

Advances in brain scanning technology have allowed neurologists to discover exactly how memories are stored inside the brain. Instead of residing in a memory bank or archive, a new memory is created when neurons grow and form new connections. The brain is rewired. Now the memory will remain there as long as the person recalls it from time to time. But each time one calls it up, it changes slightly. Memory is plastic, not static. The more we remember a certain fact or event, the stronger the connection. Conversely, the less often we do, the more tenuous the memory becomes. This process is known as reconsolidation.

Neurons forming new connections.

Those traumatic memories are not only malleable, they are part of the fight or flight response, which is why PTSD sufferers experience racing heartbeats and sweat-soaked palms. Researchers have found that if they block norepinephrine—or adrenaline as a result of recalling this memory, they can dial down the pain associated with it. Dutch psychology professor Merel Kindt showed that it could be done with sufferers of arachnophobia. By giving them a dose of the drug propranolol, Kindt and her team were able to alleviate the overwhelming fear her subjects had when confronted with a tarantula in a glass jar. Working with participants for months, by the end once traumatized participants could even pet the spider.

In a separate study, Nobel Prize winner Susumu Tonegawa and his team at MIT made a similar discovery. Experimenting on mice and using a state-of-the-art technique they invented, called optogenetics, researchers were able to show where positive and negative memories were stored. “Optogenetics for the first time allowed us to pin down the cells in the brain that literally carry the information for a specific memory,” Tonegawa said. Through further experiments, researchers were able to prove that positive and negative emotions can in fact fight for space in the same memory, and whichever prevails becomes linked to it.

Two Boston area researchers were able to “erase” pain associated with memories, this time using the anesthetic xenon gas, used medically in Europe. Edward G. Meloni, PhD is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He along with Marc J. Kaufman, PhD, director of the McLean Hospital Translational Imaging Laboratory, conducted the study. These researchers used xenon gas on mice during reconsolidation to modify their memories. Meloni and Kaufman used foot shocks to scare and hurt the mice. But when the xenon gas was introduced the fear response was inhibited

Series of neurons firing at once, such as occurs when memories are recalled.

The drug blocked certain proteins, known as calcium-permeable AMPA receptors. These cause cells within the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, to grow after exposure to something fearful. Later on, Meloni and Kaufman were able to remove negative feelings by manipulating a certain neurotransmitter. In each experiment, the team didn’t necessarily erase the memory but instead muffled the fear associated with it. This technique could not only help PTSD sufferers but also the depressed.

 Researchers at the University of Florida took a different tack. They wanted to confront the recidivism rate associated with psychostimulant addiction. These are the amphetamines, cocaine, MDMA, and methamphetamine. Since the euphoric memories attached to these drugs are so difficult to overcome, researchers attempted to “erase” them.

They created a drug called Blebbistatin (Blebb) which was able to eliminate the memory structure associated with addiction, without altering the actual memory itself. A previous study found that memories created by a psychostimulant were different from normal ones. After neurons connect and form a new memory, the protein actin stabilizes it. Those formed by psychostimulants however rest on a shaky actin platform.

Artist rendering of neuron activity inside the brain.

Researchers couldn’t attack actin itself, as it is an important protein in other parts of the body. The drug they used dissolves another molecule known as nonmuscle myosin IIB, upon which actin rests. This one is further up the biological cascade and so doesn’t affect actin in other organs. The drug disrupted the addiction-related memory in one dose, and lasted for 30 days.

Though many of these techniques have been effective on laboratory mice, many more tests must occur before human trials can begin. And there is no guarantee it will work in humans. Still, researchers are optimistic. Meloni and Kaufman say, if it works in human trials we may someday see an inhaler PTSD sufferers can use containing xenon gas to erase the pain and fear associated with their affliction.

Science fiction has longed reached into the idea of erasing and supplanting memories. Take the movies Men in Black and Eternal Sunshine, and even Total Recall—albeit originally a Philip K. Dick story. How likely are these scenarios? Could criminals, governments, or war crime suspects use such a technique to erase the memories of witnesses? Could a government use it to control people or lead their populace astray?

Of course, all technological advancements have within them the seeds of good and ill. Careful monitoring and safeguards are the only way to protect against such risks, should this technology reach that point. Today we can merely erase fear in humans pharmacologically. What about weaponizing this suppression of fear? As things stand now no such programs either by the Pentagon or others has been announced.

To learn more about this phenomenon and the studies behind it click here: 

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type ''?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes in 28th place, and in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of,,, and — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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