In its serial drama Heroes
ABC NBC coined a disturbing new ability for the superhero genre – a dude who can reach into others’ minds and erase specific memories. One can imagine some positive uses for this ability (e.g., PTSD) but most are really, really bad. Pretty much any government that can do this automatically has the kind of power that turns good leaders bad.
Prepared or not, we may soon have that ability:
A single, specific memory has been wiped from the brains of rats, leaving other recollections intact.[…] they trained rats to fear two different musical tones, by playing them at the same time as giving the rats an electric shock. Then, they gave half the rats a drug known to cause limited amnesia (U0126, which is not approved for use in people), and reminded all the animals, half of which were still under the influence of the drug, of one of their fearful memories by replaying just one of the tones.
When they tested the rats with both tones a day later, untreated animals were still fearful of both sounds, as if they expected a shock. But those treated with the drug were no longer afraid of the tone they had been reminded of under treatment. The process of re-arousing the rats’ memory of being shocked with the one tone while they were drugged had wiped out that memory completely, while leaving their memory of the second tone intact.
LeDoux’s team also confirms the idea that a part of the brain called the amygdala is central to this process – communication between neurons in this part of the brain usually increases when a fearful memory forms, but it decreases in the treated rats. This shows that the fearful memory is actually deleted, rather than simply breaking the link between the memory and a fearful response.
As with all such studies treat this as preliminary. Further work will need to confirm the results and show to what degree this extends to memories that don’t just relate to fear conditioning. In fact it would relieve me if the erasing mechanism only worked through the amygdala, since that would prevent the process from reaching happy memories (e.g., your wedding day) or neutral ones. However, if we can pull out any memory simply by administering the drug and forcing us to recall it, well…
On another point, the identity of the drug made my jaw hit the floor. Try searching Google Scholar for “U0126” and you will get an overwhelming number of hits that relate to virtually every process in our body. The drug inhibits a signaling pathway (the Raf-MEK-ERK kinase cascade) that is the cell biology equivalent of Kevin Bacon. One has a hard time finding any process more than three degrees removed.
The target pathway’s many hats (cell cycle, cytoskeleton, stress response, growth, differentiation, motility, etc) suggests that U0126 will be the mother of all side effect drugs, meaning that it probably won’t be approved for humans. However, the potential for abuse suggests in many cases USDA approval will only matter so much. It’s ubiquitous in reasearch (I could name two or three nearby labs that use it) and pretty inexpensive. People who really want it can get it.
As for what to do about that, I don’t have many suggestions. Stifling research makes no sense when some other government will get there if we don’t. The only real take-home here is that people should be ready for some weird and disturbing results to come out of the field of neuroscience in the next ten years.