Well, pack it in kids, we’ve finally gone and done it. We reached grade A, genuine sci-fi dystopia. Scientists have now successfully created and implanted an artificial memory. That is, a memory of an event that never happened created from the ground up and implanted into an animal. They’ve only done it to a mouse so far, so we’ve still got a bit of time before this whole thing starts feeling like a David Lynch movie. But boy, oh boy, this definitely feels like one of those “so focused on if we could, we never stopped to think if we should” type of deals.
According to a recent article in the journal Nature titled Memory formation in the absence of experience, scientists reverse engineered a memory to map the brain circuits involved in creating it—in this case the association of the smell of cherry blossoms with an electrical shock to the foot—then artificially implanted that memory in a mouse. Tests showed that the mouse behaved as if it actually remembered being shocked in the foot whenever it smelled cherry blossoms, despite the mouse never having been shocked nor been exposed to the scent of cherry blossoms.
Previous research had shown that it was possible to partially transfer memories from one rodent to another via reproducing the electrical activity associated with a specific memory in one mouse and jolting it into the brain of another mouse. This new experiment is different. This time the memory was created completely artificially from the ground up. This consisted of a few parts.
First, they used a technique called optogenetics. This involves fiber optic cables surgically implanted into the olfactory region of the mice’s brain so that light can be used to turn on proteins associated with specific smells. To do that, the mice had to be genetically engineered to only produce the light-sensitive protein in the region associated with acetophenone—AKA the scent of cherry blossoms. Now they could artificially create the scent of cherry blossoms in the brain of a mouse.
So we’re already into some wacky stuff, but don’t worry. It gets wackier.
The scientists identified the region of the brain responsible for creating an aversion to being shocked in the foot, an area called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). To link the two regions together, scientists then used a virus (yes, that’s correct) to implant those same light-sensitive proteins into the VTA. This way, they could use light to stimulate both regions at once. Fake memories at the speed of light.
And it worked. The mice were then placed in a rectangular chamber, one end of which smelled like cherry blossoms, while the other smelled like caraway. The mice avoided the end that smelled like cherry blossoms, because they remembered being shocked by it. In an article for Scientific American, Robert Marcone puts it this way:
The animals recalled the artificial memory, responding to an odor they had never encountered by avoiding a shock they had never received.
Now, this is still a long ways off from being used in humans. But it is an active area of research. Of course it is important to study memory. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are nothing but tragedies, and the memory of trauma can take hold over a person’s life and never let go. It’s a very important area of study, but we must be careful. If there was a way to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind away painful events, would you do it? Maybe not, but someone would. Would you implant a fake memory of a trip around the world, or how about a fake memory of hitting a walk-off home run, just to boost your confidence and self image? How many companies— companies that already specialize in creating false narratives and self images built like houses of cards—are already working to sell you that walk-off home run?
Research like this is like playing with fire. That’s a neutral statement; playing with fire brought us down from the trees and allowed us to build a civilization, overcome the bounds of gravity, and put people on the moon. But it can also burn your house to the ground.