Neuroscientists from the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and McGill University have taken the idea of positive thinking to a whole new level – by discovering a way to target and erase problematic memories from our brains, acording to a study published in the journal Current Biology.
In a series of experiments, the scientists were able to selectively delete different types of memories stored a single neuron belonging to a marine snail; one sensory neuron was stimulated to induce an associative memory and the other to induce a non-associative memory.
When the brain stores a traumatic experience in its memory bank, the memory is actually stored in multiple forms. Each memory can include bits of incidental information from the experience. Years later, these incidental, or neutral, memories can trigger panic attacks and severe anxiety.
The experiments showed two different protein were used to increase the synaptic strength during each memory’s formation. By blocking one specific protein molecule, researchers were able to delete one memory without harming the other.
The study suggests bad memories — like those responsible for PSTD and anxiety — in the human brain could be excised without harming other memories.
Basically, by deactivating the proteins that have encoded memories into your brain, you could theoretically restore the neural state that preceded a traumatic memory. Not only would you forget what happened, but your brain wouldn’t even have the infrastructure to recall the memory anymore.
“The example I like to give is, if you are walking in a high-crime area and you take a shortcut through a dark alley and get mugged, and then you happen to see a mailbox nearby, you might get really nervous when you want to mail something later on,” Samuel Schacher, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a news release.
Memories are believed to form at neural synapses, the sites where electrical impulses are passed back and forth between neurons. Changes in these neural synapses can both strengthen and weaken memories. Protein kinase M molecules (PKM) are an essential part of memory formation that can be activated by external stimulation, such as a traumatic event.
Researchers say additional studies of the behavior Protein Kinase M molecules is needed to determine which drugs might work to delete non-associative memories in the human brain.
“Memory erasure has the potential to alleviate PTSD and anxiety disorders by removing the non-associative memory that causes the maladaptive physiological response,” said Jiangyuan Hu, a research scientist in psychiatry at CUMC. “By isolating the exact molecules that maintain non-associative memory, we may be able to develop drugs that can treat anxiety without affecting the patient’s normal memory of past events.”
Although the idea of a life without bad memories can seem appealing, other researchers warned of the “huge ethical implications and considerations” involved in erasing memories.
“There could be potential downsides, especially when applied to people who would like to get rid of a ‘bad memory,’ such as a messy break-up,” Sheena Josselyn, an associate professor at the University of Toronto Department of Physiology, previously stated.
“We all learn from our mistakes. If we erase the memory of our mistakes, what is to keep us from repeating them?”
While the research shows erasing memories is possible, “our society needs to develop ethical policies around the potential use of this,” Josselyn stressed. “Just because something is possible does not mean it should be done.”
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