August 20, 2007

"it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking"

If you've seen the movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then you may remember that the main character, Joel Barish (played by Jim Carrey), hires a company to erase the memories of his ex-girlfriend (played by Kate Winslet) after an epsiode of heart-break. This ends up being a mistake for Joel, and he spends the majority of the film struggling to preserve what's left of his memories of Clemetine while unconscious.

Now of course this is all science-fiction. But what if you really could erase specific long-term memories? Say memories of a deceased loved one? Or, in Joel's case, an ex-mate? Would you do it? What about traumatic experiences? Would you be willing to erase memories of a traumatic experience?

Well, we are a long way from the memory erasing capabilities of Eternal Sunshine, but research recently published in Science suggests that long-term memories are not etched in stone as previously thought. Instead, memory might be more like a "machine" that must keep running in order to hold onto experiences. Yadin Dudai, Head of the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department, found that by inhibiting the synaptic protein, PKMzeta, long-term memories in rats could be erased.

Essentially, Dudai's team trained rats to avoid certain tastes. Once the aversion was learned, they then injected the rats with a substance in the area of the cortex associated with taste memories. This substance is a PKMzeta blocking agent. After only a single application, the rats forgot their taste aversion training.

"The technique worked as successfully a month after the memories were formed, which is analogous to years in humans, and all signs so far indicate that the affected unpleasant memories of the taste had indeed disappeared."
"In other words, long-term memory is not a one-time inscription on the nerve network, but an ongoing process which the brain must continuously fuel and maintain and these findings raise the possibility of developing a 'memory eraser'."
That's pretty cool . . . very interesting, but I can't help being left feeling uneasy. If we actually reach the point of developing a "memory eraser," would it be used for practical, commercial purposes? And what would they be? Is it even ethical to erase anyone's long-term memories for any purpose? Perhaps erasing memories of traumatic experiences that lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, I'm sure that such memory erasing capabilities would not be so solicitously advertised as it was in Eternal Sunshine, and there would probably be restrictions on the procedure. Very cool research, but definitely opens up a host of ethical questions.

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