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Doctors Can Now Delete Bad Memories. Would You Do It?

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Doctors Can Now Delete Bad Memories. Would You Do It?
MIT Scientists have identified the part of the brain that’s in charge of bad memories. The scientists also claim they can actually reverse those bad memories. That’s because the area of the brain identified as the controller of bad memories links to the emotions associated with them (1).

Imagine the possibility of erasing feelings associated with traumatic or stressful events that can often be life-changing. This is true for those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), especially war veterans. PTSD is a debilitating condition and has the potential to ruin lives.

According to the Telegraph “neuroscientists believe they can erase feelings of fear or anxiety attached to stressful events…” Their discovery could also lead to an effective treatment for those suffering chronic depression.

The MIT scientists announced their discovery in 2014. Using lab mice that were “conditioned to feel anxious” the researchers succeeded in turning off the fearful feelings.

Using imaging technology, the team was able to track the neural mechanism responsible for creating and storing memories. They believe it’s possible to actually erase memories. In addition, those memories can be edited to make them less painful. But the science goes beyond merely editing memories, it’s possible that new memories can be created. These would be false memories of events that never happened.

Memories Can Be Edited to Relieve Emotional Trauma

When a person experiences an event that is stressful or traumatic, all of the sensory information surrounding the event is relayed through the brain. That memory is then stamped as something that is “emotionally significant”.
The sensory information that’s stored includes not just what the person saw, but what was smelled, heard, physically felt, possibly tasted and of course felt emotionally. The memory containing all that sensory information of the event is then stored in the brain.

It can then be accessed anytime in the future. An event can trigger a similar response whenever the person feels threatened. This allows the person to avoid a specific situation or event. This is part of the learning process and defense function of this type of sensory memory. For example, if the person had the memory of a distinct smell associated with the event, they might possibly avoid being in the vicinity of such a smell.

Since memories are “malleable” and are constantly being written and rewritten, scientists discovered it was possible to edit that information. Unpleasant memories can be edited so they are no longer upsetting to the individual.

A February 2015 American Psychological Association (APA) article explored the research work that led to the discovery of the neurological pathways for storing sensory memories associated with trauma (2). While the pathways to a traumatic or stressful memory are quickly formed and reinforced, APA pointed out the memory isn’t “set in stone”.

This is what makes it possible for a memory to change. People often involuntarily or voluntarily play back and relive this type of memory. The replaying of the memory can reinforce it, but it can also become distorted so that the playback isn’t exactly like the original event.

MIT neuroscientist Steve Ramirez PhD told the APA, “… the process of actually recalling a memory renders it susceptible to modification.” He pointed out that the memory may feel “like a bona fide representation of the past, but memories are constantly modified with new information.”


How Scientists Can Modify Memories

Using a technique known as optogenetics, the MIT scientists were able to create a negative memory response in male mice. The first step in the process was “genetically encoded, light-responsive proteins” that were then “inserted into cells.” The researchers then “pinpointed the location of the negative memory”.

To create the negative response, each mouse sustained a shock to its foot. Scientists then “manipulated” the neurons of the memory cells with lasers. Each time the mice neared a specific enclosure, the researchers “reactivated the negative memory of the shock to its foot.” The mice soon adapted and avoided the enclosure.

To reverse the negative memory, the scientists then placed the male mice with female mice. While the male mice enjoyed being with the female mice, the scientists stimulated the same neurons used to create the negative memory. Through repetition, the negative response was changed to a message of pleasure instead of pain (3).

When the scientists returned the male mice to the enclosure where they’d been conditioned to have a negative response, they didn’t exhibit any fear or negative reaction to the chamber. The fear they’d previously felt had disappeared and was replaced with the new emotion of pleasure.

Using this model, scientists hope they’ll soon be able to erase or delete the traumatizing part of a memory. This should enable the process of creating safer and even new mental associations for the sensory triggers that are associated with the trauma. There doesn’t appear to be an expiration date on memories that can be modified. Even an old memory “retains plasticity” and can be “updated”.

This type of therapy could potentially help even ‘cure’ those suffering from traumatic events, severe depression or other stressful memories.

References & Image Credits:
(1) Telegraph
(2) APA
(3) TSW: How Mind Control Applications Might Shape Our Future

Originally published on

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