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Unlocking the Mysteries of Memory Creates Excitement, Concern

August 14, 2008 06:53 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Scientists are discovering how memories can be changed or altered. The implications of such research can save some people and devastate others.

Blocking Memories, Creating New Ones

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Advances in memory research are creating all sorts of possibilities, from breaking drug addiction to lessening the affect of post-traumatic stress disorder. But some wonder what the cost of manipulating memories and memory formation could be.

Blocking memory creation helped break some mice’s addiction to cocaine, say researchers at England’s University of Cambridge. According to Scientific American, the mice got experimental drugs that blocked certain brain receptors which help form memories. The mice receiving the experimental drugs were no longer interested in cocaine.

“Scientists say [the experiment] suggests that by disrupting the recollection of a drug-associated memory—a person one abuses drugs with, a place that one uses drugs at, for example—a therapeutic may be able to break the connection between cues in the environment and the need for drugs. Sometimes these cues can be quite close to home—a family member or loved one,” wrote Nikhil Swaminathan in Scientific American.

Earlier this year, Bristol University researchers made what they called “a major step forward in our understanding of recognition memory,” when they blocked a particular molecule in rats, which affected their ability to recognize objects.

Mice were also the centerpiece of a study involving traumatic events and a natural hormone, corticosterone. In that study, according to ScienceDaily, mice received a mild electric shock, and then days later, were returned to the place where the shock occurred. Mice that received a corticosterone shot at the time of the shock experienced less fear than those who didn’t. The hormone seems to help boost a competing memory of the traumatic event that makes the original experience less frightening.

Stephen Greene, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern and one of the study authors told ScienceDaily, “We’re not erasing memories. What the steroid does is attenuate the fear memory by helping the mice to learn that these contexts should no longer be perceived as dangerous.”

Analysis: Memory and ethics; modifying memories in the real world

In 2002, the President’s Council on Bioethics discussed memory, and raised concern about the problems breakthroughs could create. A working paper council staff prepared asks: “Does blocking out or erasing unwanted memories fulfill our identity (by making us the person we wish to be) or compromise our identity (by severing us from the person, like it or not, that we are and were)?”

The authors go on to describe the dual purposes advances in memory modification could have: “For example, a memory-blocking agent, useful in the prevention of post-traumatic stress disorder, could also have devastating bio-terrorist uses.”

Writing about the study at io9, Annalee Newitz had questions about applying the Cambridge study to people. “What I want to know is what exactly it feels like to have your memories tampered with so much that you no longer recall wanting to do a drug you’ve been addicted to,” she asked. “Do you literally forget taking the drug? Or do you just forget that it felt good?”

Reference: The brain; addiction

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