What does Hollywood have to do with scientific research? More than you might think. It turns out that at least some scientists have been taking cues from the Big Screen. Consider several recent movies about memory manipulation. In Total Recall, a man goes to a company to have a pleasant memory implanted, only to discover that his current life is a fake implant and that all his memories of his real life on Mars were previously eradicated. A related theme shows up in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which focuses on a man who hires a company to selectively erase all his memories of an unhappy relationship and then regrets the decision in the middle of the memory-deleting process. Similarly, Inception centers around a thief who can steal ideas from people’s brains while they sleep. Amazingly, these and similar films have inspired scientists to delve deeply into memory manipulation research.
Even a few years ago, these films seemed as unlikely as a Klingon invasion, but no longer. Just yesterday, a headline in The Guardian announced, “Scientists transplant memories between sea snails via injection.”1 That study follows on the heels of other research exploring how to control and delete memories in humans. In a recent Ted Talk, Dr. Steve Ramirez of MIT, a neuroscientist who has been researching how to activate and deactivate particular memories, explained, “We began touching on these ideas [about manipulating memory] mainly because all of us [MIT scientists involved in this study] are huge fans of movies like Inception … For me personally, looking to Hollywood is a great source of questions. I feel that Hollywood is a repository of all these fantastic ideas, because nobody in Hollywood is limited.”
Why would Hollywood-smitten researchers move into this territory when, in all of the above-mentioned movies, the memory manipulation antics brought tremendous grief to the involved parties—other than Total Recall, where Schwarzenegger saves Mars, gets the girl, and lives happily ever after? Because, the researchers point out, there’s plenty of potential for the good. If they can control memory, the researchers say, they can cure PTSD and reverse Alzheimer’s, get rid of phobias, and perhaps even remove addictive urges. The problem, of course, is there’s great potential for abuse and unintentional harm.
The 2016 documentary, Memory Hackers, highlights a British study in which subjects were implanted with false memories to convince them they had committed a crime.2 The subjects were completely certain of their guilt after the procedure, which boiled down to a form of prolonged, but simple brainwashing. Experts point to the fact that memory is malleable and inexact. Each time we recall something, our brain reconstructs the experience and then reconfigures it for storage, a process called “reconsolidation,” and after each reconsolidation, the memory may alter a bit, particularly if new information is introduced via brainwashing. This study makes obvious one set of scary possibilities, and unfortunately, as Michael Bicks who wrote and directed Memory Hackers says, “The ethics is rushing to catch up with the science.” 3
Brainwashing over a period of weeks or months might yield memory alteration, but science has unearthed faster and more certain techniques. One startling Dutch study published in Biological Psychiatry highlights how easily memories can be deleted employing common drugs already in use.4 The subjects in the Dutch study all had arachnophobia (spider phobia). The terrified subjects were exposed to tarantulas and then directed to pet them. Right after that traumatic exposure, each subject was given a dose of the beta-blocker drug Propranonol, (a common blood pressure medication). Propranonol works by blocking norepinephrine—a chemical that enhances learning—in the brain. Normally, after a traumatic event, memory would reconsolidate to reestablish the original fear, but in this case, the propranonol blocked the reconsolidation process. As a result, all of the phobic subjects were able to touch the spider in a subsequent visit, and many even could hold it in their hands. Amazingly, their profound fear didn’t return even a year later. Researchers say this study confirms that memory is multifaceted and continues to exist only when successfully reconsolidated after any recollection.
While the experiment may prove that Propranonol has great potential as a memory deletion aid, it also raises questions about how it affects the brains of those taking it as a blood pressure regulator. That question aside, other studies reveal alternate paths to memory control. At Columbia University, for instance, researchers are using “Optigenetics” to map memories and then manipulate them using lasers. Basically, they’re mapping which neurons fire when mice are exposed to certain events, and then they make those neurons light-sensitive. When the mice are exposed to lasers, the light-sensitive neurons are activated and the memory of the event awakened. So far, the scientists have only attempted optigenetics with mice, but they are having great success isolating very specific memories and turning those memories on and off. Experts say it’s just a matter of time until the same precision can be used on human brains, allowing people to bring back happy memories and to discard miserable ones.
Meanwhile, at UCLA, researchers shocked snails until they developed an exaggerated withdrawal response as soon as their skin was touched. Then, the scientists withdrew RNA from these snails and injected it into “virgin snails” who hadn’t been shocked. Those snails also exhibited the withdrawal response when touched, indicating that they had acquired the response from memories of the shocked snails. As a control, the scientists also extracted RNA from snails who’d been hooked up to wires but not shocked, and the RNA of these snails did not provoke the withdrawal reaction in the subject snails. The researchers say their results show that memory also resides in RNA and not just in synapses.
Experts agree that it’s still a long road before science will be able to transfer human memories from one person to another, but most agree it’s not an impossibility. Given the speed with which science seems to be breaking boundaries once thought unlikely, perhaps the relevant question now isn’t whether we’ll soon be able to transplant human memories from one person to another, but rather, will we be able to transfer human memories to robots--but that’s a whole different blog--or even to sea snails?
- 1. Sample, Ian. “Scientists transplant memories between sea snails via injection.” 14 May 2018. The Guardian. 15 May 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/may/14/scientists-transplant-memories-between-sea-snails-via-injection#img-1
- 2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZXmWOju1V8
- 3. Carlin, Susan. “PBS Doc ‘Memory Hackers’ Shows the Future of Memory Manipulation.” 10 February 2016. Fast Company. 17 May 2018. https://www.fastcompany.com/3056380/pbs-doc-memory-hackers-shows-the-future-of-memory-manipulation
- 4. Friedman, Richard A. “A Drug to Cure Fear.” 22 January 2016. The New York Times. 18 May 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/opinion/sunday/a-drug-to-cure-fear.html