Spotless Minds

Neuroscientists have discovered a technique for turning memories on and off with the flip of a switch.

A lab rat, working through an average day at Rodent University.

So far, the system has only been tested on rats. A team led by Sam A. Deadwyler of the Wake Forest Department of Physiology and Pharmacology trained the animals to memorize a lever-pressing task, and used probes to record electrochemical changes that took place in certain regions of the hippocampus, a primitive part of the cerebral cortex that’s crucial for the formation of new memories. These hippocampal sub-regions, known as CA1 and CA3, appear to be central to the task of converting short-term memories to long-term ones.

Once the rats had learned how to perform the task, the researchers used drugs to block interactions between CA1 and CA3, inhibiting the encoding of short-term memories into long-term ones – effectively causing the rats to “un-remember” what they’d learned.

But by activating an implanted device that recreated the electrical interactions between those same hippocampal regions, the scientists were able to recreate the connections, causing the rats to “re-remember” the memory, and perform the task correctly again – as long as those electrical signals were running through their brains.

What’s more, it looks like these cybernetic implants can even be used to give rats stronger memories than before:

The researchers went on to show that if a prosthetic device and its associated electrodes were implanted in animals with a normal, functioning hippocampus, the device could actually strengthen the memory being generated internally in the brain and enhance the memory capability of normal rats.

Though this system might seem like a first step in the direction of Eternal Sunshine-style memory-wipe therapy, the researchers seem to be more excited about its potential in the emerging mental prosthesis field:

Next steps … will be attempts to duplicate the rat results in monkeys, with the aim of eventually creating prostheses that might help the human victims of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or injury recover function.

The human hippocampus helps encode vastly more complex data into long-term memories, so it’s likely to take years of research before humans get to test-drive cybernetic memory implants.

And at any rate, the question of how “perfect” a perfect memory actually is remains open for debate.

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