A “Men in Black” neurlyzer (memory eraser) device may be a reality one day as researchers from Oxford University have managed to successfully delete associative memories in mice.
For the first time researchers have caused an external decoding of an associative memory in a mammal. The study gives an insight into how the brain creates and stores memories, and could lead to new therapies in treating conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction.
In the researcher’s paper, which was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, they describe how they caused an associative memory to form in test mice, and then the technique they used to recode it, causing the memory to be removed.
Associative memories refers to the ability to learn and remember the relationship between unrelated items such as the name of someone we have just met or the aroma of a particular perfume.
In their experiments they first caused an associative memory in test mice by placing a small amount of cocaine in a room. Over a short space of time the mice prefer that room over an identical room that only had a saline solution to offer.
The researchers then identified place cells in the hippocampus that began to show heightened activity — this indicated that they were driving the rodents’ memory of this particular space. This allowed them to genetically alter the mice so that the place cells would produce light-sensitive proteins, which allowed them to turn these particular place cells on and off by flashing a light.
The team then introduced light feeding fiber cables into the brain area, and after they were switched on the mice were once again allowed to enter the room that once held the cocaine. The researchers found the mice no longer preferred it to the room with the saline, meaning the associative memory had been lost.
This however does not mean the mice had lost the taste for the cocaine, but rather the particular environmental cue that previously contributed to their drug-taking behavior had been erased.
It was also found that other unassociated place cells had become active, which means the mouse unknowingly had create a new cognitive map. The team claims that this is the first experiment showing that it is possible to recode a memory in a mammal by using external techniques.
More work is essential in order to refine the process and determine whether it can be applied to humans. Although the authors note that it confirms the “engram theory of memory,” which hypothesizes that memories are stored biophysically, and come about due to biochemical changes in brain areas.
While it may help conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction, some thought must be given to how it could be misused.
For those that live on another planet, here is a clip from Fresh Movie Trailers with the Men in Black using a neurlyzer: