Scientists Discover How To Erase Unwanted Memories In Mice: Are Humans Next?

By Philip Ross on September 11, 2013 3:30 PM EDT

memory
Erasing unwanted memories sounds appealing, but are we even close to doing it yet? (Photo: Flickr/anna_mo)

The prospect of erasing unwanted memories -- a bad breakup, witnessing a terrible accident or even that painfully awkward family reunion five years ago -- may be closer than we think. At the very least, scientists have accomplished the first step towards that level of mind control.

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Researchers from The Scripps Research Institute in Florida have found a way to repress certain drug addiction memories in mice and rats without affecting other, less harmful memories. Zee News reports that scientists at the institute got the rodents addicted to methamphetamine and trained them to remember the rewarding effects of the drug through certain visual and olfactory cues.

By later injecting a myosin II inhibitor into the rodents' brains, the researchers were able to halt the process of actin polymerization, or the creation of large chainlike molecules, in rodents' brains, which essentially closed those memory channels. The rats and mice no longer showed interest in the sights and scents that once triggered them to crave methamphetamine -- sort of like a reverse Pavlov's dogs experiment.

According to researchers, the animals' other memories, like those associated with food rewards, were unaffected.

"Our memories make us who we are, but some of these memories can make life very difficult," Courtney Miller, an assistant professor at Scripps who led the research, said in a statement. "Not unlike in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we're looking for strategies to selectively eliminate evidence of past experiences related to drug abuse or a traumatic event. Our study shows we can do just that in mice -- wipe out deeply engrained drug-related memories without harming other memories."

There's a more practical use to erasing unwanted memories. Drug addicts often experience cravings simply at the sight or smell of a certain object or smell.  

"Former meth addicts, for instance, report intense drug cravings triggered by associations with cigarettes, money, even gum (used to relieve dry mouth), pushing them back into the addiction they so desperately want to leave," Science Daily reports.

Addressing drug addiction by inhibiting memories associated with the drug is the first step towards erasing other kinds of unwanted memories.

"The hope is that our strategies may be applicable to other harmful memories, such as those that perpetuate smoking or PTSD," Miller said.

These findings, published this week in the journal Biological Psychiatry, are just the beginning. More likely, human memory control is still a long way off. Aside from certain therapies that have proven to alleviate the effects of painful memories in humans -- oh, and other shock therapies -- erasing specific memories with an inhibitor isn't possible.

Read more from iScience Times:

Teen Memory Erased: 18-Year-Old Rosie Paley Uses Photos, Stories To Recall 16 Years Of Life After Rare Brain Disease Wipes Out Memory

Club Drug Ecstasy Can Damage Memory

Princeton Scientists Identify Neural Activity Sequences that Help Form Memory, Decision-making

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