Scientists are gaining impressive new insight into the brain and nervous system of late. New experiments in neuron signaling could one day return movement to victims of paralysis. And the next generation of computer controllers are already tuning in to our brain waves. New technology even promises to reverse memory loss.
Now a radical new technology may dramatically alter life as we know it. The Georgia College of Medicine has invented a chemical treatment that molecularly wipes traumatic or intense memories. The chemical, successfully tested on lab mice, could be adapted to human physiology according to research and could one day be available to treat a variety of psychological ailments or even for elective use.
The approach targets a specific chemical in the brain. This chemical, a protein, plays a crucial role in the formation of memories. When recalling a specific painful event, a drug developed by the researchers overloads this mechanism, causing an excess of the protein to be produced. This causes the brain to overload and chemically wipe all trace of the negative memory, without any apparent physiologically harmful side effects.
Scientists say that the treatment could be applied to humans and could one day wipe memories of traumatic events, a common cause of psychological problems. While the researchers caution that memories are an important part of the learning process, they also acknowledge that some memories cause the mind more harm than good.
Dr. Joe Tsien, of the Brain and Behaviour Discovery Institute in Georgia comments, "First of all I should emphasise the methodology is not applicable to the human clinical situation yet. However, it does suggest molecular paradigms which we can explore to perhaps achieve the same kind of effects in humans - but those are probably years or decades away."
He comments that war veterans, "often suffer from reoccurring traumatic memory replays after returning home". A pill version of the memory wipe chemical could one day eliminate these traumatic flashbacks.
The new medicine bears uncanny parallels to the fictional movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" in which Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey play two characters formerly in love who decide to wipe their memories of each other.
Dr. Joe Tsien warns, though, that if the treatment should ever be adapted for the human physiology, people should use it with caution. He describes that most memories are useful, but a few can be harmful. "If one got a bad relationship with another person, hoping to have a pill to erase the memory of that person or relationship is not the solution. (But) while memories are great teachers and obviously crucial for survival and adaptation, selectively removing incapacitating memories, such as traumatic war memories or an unwanted fear, could help many people live better lives."
The scientists used a special chamber to test the memory wipe. A sound would play and mice would receive a mild, slightly painful shock. The mice became alarmed when they would hear the noise. Giving the mice the "memory protein" alpha-CaMKII, also found in humans, when the mice were not hearing the sound did nothing, apparently because the mice were not accessing the memory. However, when the researchers played the sound and administered excess levels of the protein, the memory of the mice was wiped. This was evidenced by repeated trials which showed the memory wiped mice to be unafraid of the sound when normal mice started panicking.
While many may be curious of how the new technology might affect life, Dr. Tsien reminds that it will take time to adapt to the human physiology. He states, "No one should expect to have a pill do the same in humans any time soon, we are barely at the foot of a very tall mountain."
And yet, the new research takes the prospect of human memory wipes from the realm of fiction to ongoing research, and in doing so raises key social, moral, and ethical quandaries.