In a study conducted on snails, scientists were able to erase selected memories while retaining others using enzymes that block neurons.
Protein Kinase M, or PKM, is an enzyme that basically allows for the brain to hold onto memories or to forget them entirely. Using PKM, scientists have been able to effectively delete selected memories in snails. By basically blocking these PKM enzymes, neurons in the brain release their bonds, which means that the associated memories are simply forgotten. Doing this on the molecular level, the scientists were able to pick and choose which memories were retained and which were not.
While this sounds pretty nefarious, the ultimate goal is to provide anxiety relief to people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If doctors can delete certain aspects of a memory of a traumatic event, then PTSD sufferers can function and live more comfortably.
Samuel Schacher, a professor of neuroscience and co-author of the paper gives this 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, the 'lesson learned' in basic terms, is a healthy fear of dark alleys. The non-associative memory or the 'wild card' memory is the mailbox. After being mugged, one should be anxious about entering a dark alley; this is a healthy anxiety, information designed to keep you safe in the future. However, one should not be anxious about mailboxes because it was not directly involved in the event.
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.
By using PKM, the team was able to proverbially keep the memory of the mugging in the dark alley, but remove the mailbox, at least when it came to the mugged snails. While this has not been tested on humans, and the reality of that is still a few years away, all vertebrates have similar synaptic structures. If you can do it to a snail, you can probably do it to a human.
This does raise some massive ethical implications. While the study is designed for therapeutic purposes, the ability to wipe certain aspects of a memory does feel morally "icky." Imagine taking soldiers recently in combat, deleting any mental trauma, and placing them back into a combat situation 'good as new'. Even more disturbing would be the potential shift in cultural ideology concerning anxiety, stress, and trauma; no need to work through your issues, just erase them. Bad day at the office? Gone. Got into an argument with your spouse? What were we fighting about again?
As technology continues to advance, humanity will need to face some serious questions. Many of these breakthroughs are amazing and truly help people to live healthy and productive lives, but they also do come with a cost. This study has nothing but good intentions, however, so too does the road to hell.
(Feature image credit: vitstudio/shutterstock)