Imagine a future where scientists implant memories in your brain, convincing you of memories you never experienced. Sound farfetched? In Cambridge, Massachusetts, this dream is approaching reality.
According to a recent study out of MIT, researchers have successfully embedded false memories into the brains of mice. The team, a collaboration between Japan’s Riken Brain Science Institute and MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, managed to implant fabricated realities into the animals’ minds, essentially sequencing memories the mice never had.
Here’s how it works. Researchers first located neurons active while the mice were forming memories and observed how the memories are stored. Once they determined the sequences are stored locally, not globally—solving a debate in the scientific community—they discovered the memories can be activated by a single neuron. The team then attached light-sensitive proteins to the neurons involved with forming ideas about new environments. In short, these genetically engineered cells could be activated by light.
This is where it gets crazy. The mice were first placed in a safe environment A. The next day, researchers moved them to a new location, environment B. Here the researchers activated the memories of the first environment while lightly shocking the mice’s feet. Mice particularly dislike this, so it created a negative association. When the mice were placed back in environment A on the third day, their behavior changed: even though their experience in the location had been safe, the mice displayed anxiety behaviors. Brain scans showed the same type activity as when they were worried about the shocks in the dangerous environment. The researchers had convinced the mice of experiences they never had.
This is not the first time scientists have observed false memories. In fact, psychologists have been aware of the phenomenon for years. Misinformation, misattribution, and strong emotions often muddle our recollections, and Elizabeth Loftus’ famous Lost in the Mall experiment shows people can be made to recall entirely fabricated experiences. That said, this study is the first to locate the neural networks involved and neurologically implant the fabrications.
So will this work on people? For now, no. A mouse’s brain has about 75 million neurons compared to a human’s 86 billion, and the study’s senior author says the idea should not be pursued for ethical reasons. The team is currently interested in using its findings to demonstrate our memory’s fallibility, which could have major implications for courtrooms (eye-witness accounts, anyone?). The findings could also improve our understanding of memory-related disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It is important to note that while these memories may be manipulated or entirely false, they are real to the individual experiencing them. When the mice saw the safe environment, they felt memories of fear and disruption. The untrue recollections are indecipherable from the real ones.
I find this fascinating but also terrifying. Many people lack basic ethics, and the potential for exploitation seems ripe. Could 1984 be right around the corner? I don’t think so, but with advances in technology “brain hacks” like this will become increasingly plausible. Is this technology amazing? Am I right to be concerned? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. As always, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. That small click really helps me out! Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday! IT’S FREE!
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Comment question of the week
Amazing discovery or disaster in waiting?