By Jason Castro | Scientific American
How neuroscientists can call up and change a memory
It’s the premise of every third sci-fi thriller. Man wakes up to his normal seeming life, but of course it isn’t. At first, just the little things are off – the dog won’t eat and the TV keeps looping some strange video – but whatever. A few cuts later, with only his granddad’s rusty brass knuckles and a steely-eyed contempt for authority, our hero reveals a conspiracy that kicks up straight to the top. There were deals. Some blackmailing. A probe or two. But in the end, what’s most important is that everything he thought he knew was wrong. Because the scientists (Noooo!!) got to him with one of those electrode caps and rewrote his memory. Everything – the job, the daughter, the free parking – is a lie.
The dramatic ploy works on us because memory seems inviolable, or at least, we desperately hope that it is. We allow that our memories may fade and fail a bit, but otherwise, we go on the sanity-preserving assumption that there is one reason why we remember a particular thing: because we were there, and it actually happened.
Now, a new set of experiments, led by MIT neuroscientists Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu in Susumu Tonegawa’s lab, shows that this needn’t be the case. Using a stunning set of molecular neuroscience techniques (no electrode caps involved), these scientists have captured specific memories in mice, altered them, and shown that the mice behave in accord with these new, false, implanted memories. The era of memory engineering is upon us, and naturally, there are big implications for basic science and, perhaps someday, human health and society.