Mad scientists can erase memories from a snail’s brain … are humans next?

It is something that looked like it was taken straight out of a movie scene: scientists successfully erasing memories from the brain. The only difference is, we’re talking about a snail’s brain here. But there is an eerie possibility that this could soon happen to humans as well.

A new study conducted at the Columbia University Medical Center strongly suggests that it is possible to erase specific memories in the brain. They were able to wipe out specific memories of snails and they think that it is highly possible that a certain drug could be developed for humans.

Samuel Schacher, study co-author and professor of neuroscience in the school’s psychiatry department, wrote in an email as reported in “We were able to reverse long-term changes in synaptic strength at synapses known to contribute to different forms of memories.” Synapses are tubes that allow neurons to pass signals to each other. These synapses are responsible for moderating long-term memories. The strength of these synapses will affect the brain’s ability to maintain the memory.”

By blocking certain molecules that are associated with the enzyme Protein Kinase M (PKM), the scientists were able to successfully wipe out certain memories. As reported in the journal Current Biology, scientists were able to erase specific memories by blocking different molecules associated with PKM. Knowing which of these molecules to block will provide scientists the power to decide which memory to erase.

This might sound scary but scientists have a legitimate reason to justify this experiment. Their goal is to provide anxiety relief for those who are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When you can erase specific memories – in this case, traumatic experience – these people would be able to live and function more comfortably.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD sufferers need not be victims of dangerous events, like war. People who have gone through the death of a loved one can also suffer from PTSD. Other risk factors that can make someone more likely to develop PTSD include getting hurt, childhood trauma, feeling extreme fear, having little to no social support, dealing with extra stress, and history of mental illness or substance abuse. Seven or eight out of 100 people are bound to suffer from PTSD, according to the National Center for PTSD.

PTSD sufferers can be triggered by both associative and non-associative memories. Schacher provides an example: “If you are walking in a high-crime area and you take a shortcut through a dark alley and get mugged, and then you happen to see a mailbox nearby, you might get really nervous when you want to mail something later on.”

The associative memory – one that’s directly connected to the event —  is fear of dark alleys  — while the non-associative one — not connected to the actual event — would be being triggered after seeing the mailbox. Schacher further added: “One focus of our current research is to develop strategies to eliminate problematic non-associative memories that may become stamped on the brain during a traumatic experience without harming associative memories, which can help people make informed decisions in the future – like not taking shortcuts through dark alleys in high-crime areas.”

This scientific breakthrough is impressive. The ability to wipe out memories used to be possible only in movies but it’s now closer to reality, and has the potential to be used in helping people live more peacefully. But there’s one obvious question: will erasing memories mean erasing ourselves in the process?

Surely there’d be concerns about the ethics of manipulating human minds. They say we’re ultimately made of the experiences we’ve accumulated in life. But what if we no longer remember some of them? Does that make us incomplete?

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