Eradicating Memories: A Future Cure for Many?

It all sounds like a scene from a science fiction film, but it may one day be possible for humans to erase painful memories and for many to find a cure to memory-related issues.

Researchers in Florida have now demonstrated a method in mice that disrupts unwanted memories while leaving the rest untouched. The results, which were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, reveal that such a discovery is not fiction, but a possible reality.

Crystal meth relapses are caused in part by triggers rooted in memory. Image via Radspunk/Wikimedia Commons.

Crystal meth relapses are caused in part by triggers rooted in memory.
Image via Radspunk/Wikimedia Commons.

According to Science Daily, the research team led by Courtney Miller from the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in Florida successfully erased drug-associated memories in mice and rats, providing hope for recovering addicts or people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They’ve noted that former methamphetamine addicts have reported drug craving triggered by memory associations.

The process of removing the memories involves inhibiting a chemical associated with memory formation during “the maintenance phase” of memory formation. As a result of this intervention, the memories of meth-addicted rodents associated with methamphetamine were “immediately and persistently” lost.

Associate Professor Scott Slotnick of Boston College’s Psychology Department has done much research on memory and perception, studying neural mechanisms of visual memory as well as control regions and sensory effects associated with retrieval of visual memories.

Slotnick asserts that the previously mentioned study was conducted by injecting the drug/medicine that disrupted memory directly into sub-regions of the amygdala, a very small region deep within the brain of the mice and that in humans such an invasive procedure would not be possible due to the risk of injury or death.

Although testing on lab rats is meaningful, there are many obstacles before this science can be useful to humans. Image via Janet Stephens/Wikimedia Commons.

Although testing on lab rats is meaningful, there are many obstacles before this science can be useful to humans.
Image via Janet Stephens/Wikimedia Commons.

“For humans, drugs operate on the entire brain such that the effects would likely not be limited to one class of memory, such as the METH associated memory that was disrupted in the study. That said, animal studies such as these are often the first steps in finding drugs to treat human mental disorders,” says Slotnick.

For recovering addicts and individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), unwanted memories can be devastating affecting their lives and the lives of those around them. Thus, such a breakthrough can help many individuals who suffer from such issues and help them to significantly improve their lives.

However, many concerns do arise about the future implications of such treatment on humans. For one, the biological makeup of humans and mice greatly differs. What is tested on animals is not always sure to be safe for human beings.

According to Slotnick the availability of such medicine could certainly bring about many drawbacks. Due to the risk of injury or death, drugs that were tested in animals cannot be similarly used to target specific regions of the brain in humans.

Slotnick explains that, “Human mental disorders are treated with medicine given systematically, usually in a pill, and operate in a much less selective manner in many regions of the brain. As such, the effects would disrupt other forms of memory and other types of cognitive functions (e.g., attention and language).”

Image via rob.knight/Flickr.

Image via rob.knight/Flickr.

Alluding to the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he goes on assert that some might try to use this medicine to eliminate a particular traumatic memory such as that of a failed past relationship in the film. However, due to the non-selective effect of such a medicine, treasured memories would also be disrupted.

“As memories define who we are, I wouldn’t take that pill,” says Slotnick.

For many, eradicating painful and sometimes haunting memories seems like an idea too perfect to be true and such a case might truly be argued. In the end, it is important to ask whether such a treatment is worth risking the possibility of eradicating all memories even the good ones. Is such a discovery that may have an incredible impact on the future of humankind worth the risk, or is it simply a utopian dream out of a science fiction film?

Featured image via wesleynitsckie/Flickr.

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