Neuroscientists Successfully Plant False Memories Identical In Nature To Authentic Memories
Is it possible to permanently change your memories? The phenomenon of false memory has been well-documented: In many court cases, defendants have been found guilty based on testimony from witnesses and victims who were sure of their recollections, but DNA evidence later overturned the conviction. In a step toward understanding how these faulty memories arise, MIT neuroscientists have shown that they can plant false memories. They also found that many of the neurological traces of these memories are identical in nature to those of authentic memories.
Some researchers are working with victims of rape and car accidents and attempting to replace their memories with less fear-filled ones using hypertension drugs. Other scientists are studying whether behavioral therapy can one day be used to modify memories of people who react with fear to common anxiety-producing events.
However, critics claim that
research is being focused around initiatives for malicious intentions.
"It's no secret that scientists are working closing with government establishments to find ways to bring large groups of people under mental and emotional control," said Bashar Khayat from Free Thinkers Society. Many researchers such as Khayat believe that the intentions behind most memory-based treatments are very deceptive.
"Most of the research in this area currently revolves around how to induce and eliminate fear," said Khayat. According to his research, there is an international consortium of scientists who are working aggressively to find ways to control fear in both the public and military. "Being able to turn fear on and off would give any government a considerable advantage in controlling their military and general population," stated Khayat. Theoretically, chaos and orderly conduct could be under big brother's direction should such treatment protocols be used to unilaterally benefit government interests.
“Whether it’s a false or genuine memory, the brain’s neural mechanism underlying the recall of the memory is the same,” says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and senior author of a paper describing the findings in the July 25 edition of Science.
The study also provides further evidence that memories are stored in networks of neurons that form memory traces for each experience we have -- a phenomenon that Tonegawa’s lab first demonstrated last year.
Neuroscientists have long sought the location of these memory traces, also called engrams. In the pair of studies, Tonegawa and colleagues at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory showed that they could identify the cells that make up part of an engram for a specific memory and reactivate it using a technology called optogenetics.
Seeking the Engram
Episodic memories -- memories of experiences -- are made of associations of several elements, including objects, space and time. These associations are encoded by chemical and physical changes in neurons, as well as by modifications to the connections between the neurons.
Where these engrams reside in the brain has been a longstanding question in neuroscience. “Is the information spread out in various parts of the brain, or is there a particular area of the brain in which this type of memory is stored? This has been a very fundamental question,” Tonegawa says.
The goal of the research isn't to erase memory outright, although that technology has been rumoured to exist in military circles. However, that would raise too many eyebrows and lead to ethical debate. Instead, "reducing or eliminating the fear accompanying the memory...that would be the ideal scenario," says Roger Pitman, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who has done extensive work in this area.
"Scientists can easily create super soldiers and a hypnotized public with the exact same protocols," said Khayat. Sometimes a traumatic incident can trigger an enduring response of fear whenever the incident is recalled, even indirectly. Khayat stressed that by subconciously implanting memories in those who are exposed to specific types of media, large groups of people could be subjected to trauma with even simple triggers.
Scientists already know how to set off an emotional response in combat veterans by simulating a specific set of frequencies that have become associated with wartime experience.
Incepting False Memories
That is exactly what the researchers did in the new study -- exploring whether they could use these reactivated engrams to plant false memories in the mice’s brains.
First, the researchers placed the mice in a novel chamber, A, but did not deliver any shocks. As the mice explored this chamber, their memory cells were labeled with channelrhodopsin. The next day, the mice were placed in a second, very different chamber, B. After a while, the mice were given a mild foot shock. At the same instant, the researchers used light to activate the cells encoding the memory of chamber A.
On the third day, the mice were placed back into chamber A, where they now froze in fear, even though they had never been shocked there. A false memory had been incepted: The mice feared the memory of chamber A because when the shock was given in chamber B, they were reliving the memory of being in chamber A.
Moreover, that false memory appeared to compete with a genuine memory of chamber B, the researchers found. These mice also froze when placed in chamber B, but not as much as mice that had received a shock in chamber B without having the chamber A memory activated.
The researchers then showed that immediately after recall of the false memory, levels of neural activity were also elevated in the amygdala, a fear center in the brain that receives memory information from the hippocampus, just as they are when the mice recall a genuine memory.
“They identified a neural network associated with experience in an environment, attached a fear association with it, then reactivated the network to show that it supports memory expression. That, to me, shows for the first time a true functional engram,” says Eichenbaum, who was not part of the research team.
“Now that we can reactivate and change the contents of memories in the brain, we can begin asking questions that were once the realm of philosophy,” Ramirez says. “Are there multiple conditions that lead to the formation of false memories? Can false memories for both pleasurable and aversive events be artificially created? What about false memories for more than just contexts -- false memories for objects, food or other mice? These are the once seemingly sci-fi questions that can now be experimentally tackled in the lab.”
More work needs to be done to know if the process can work in real-life situations with complex memories. Or, a treatment could be used to affect the mind's ability to enhance happy memories, which can make them seem even more pleasurable than the original event.
"They're looking to control the whole gamut of memory and experience, and the question should not be how or if we can control people's behavior, but why are we controlling it?" concluded Khayat.
Kelley Bergman is a media consultant, critic and geopolitical investigator. She has worked as a journalist and writer, specializing in geostrategic issues around the globe.