Can scientists really change your memories?

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stick_figure_thinking_cap_500_wht_10194Short of brain-washing people it sounds almost like a sci-fi fantasy. However scientists have succeeded in manipulating the brains of mice, turning fearful recollections into happy ones.

Whatever you think about the prospect of wiping out any memories – you could argue that we are shaped by our experiences and our memories of them, good or bad – it may be that for some people it’s the only way for them to live a normal life. But they said the same thing about ECT which seems barbaric now (although still used).

Steve Ramirez, a neuroscientist at MIT said “ We can now go in and study these memory centres and tinker with them to change the content. Our memories feel like a tape recorder of the past but in reality it’s a construction that is constantly being warped with some emotions fading and new ones coming in.

The authors of the recent study, published in Nature, believe that eventually it will be of clinical use in helping humans. But “tinkering” with our brains?

The leader of the study, Susumu Tonegawa, said “We have no intention of using this technology to alter normal healthy people’s minds or cognitions. If there is any application of this, it is for pathological conditions to reduce the suffering of people with psychiatric conditions”.

The study demonstrates that the factual content of our memories are stored in a different brain centre (the hippocampus) from the emotional content (in the amygdala) of those memories and can be altered using a technique called optogenetics.

This entails a light-sensitive protein being introduced into active brain cells so the neurons can be switched on and off by shining a laser at the head.

lab_rat_with_pen_clipboard_1600_wht_14929In the experiment scientists introduced the protein into the mice’s brains at the same time as they gave them an electric shock. They taught the mice to associate the shock with a small square in their cage and hit them with laser pulses every time they stepped on it until they began to avoid it.

Then they put them in a cage with female mice which the experimenters say evokes positive emotions! The memory of the electric shock was reactivated using the laser pulses (which they now associated with positive emotions) so that when they were returned to their original cages they actively sought out they small square they had previously associated with the electric shock.

If this technique works in humans it opens up a whole debate about the ethics of using it. Who decides what normal behaviour is? What’s to stop government agencies using the technique for their own ends.

Remember the film Total Recall based on the short story by Philip K Dick “We can remember it for you wholesale” about memories and reality (the 1990 version is the best one but here’s the trailer for the 2012 re-make)?


Have our brains really peaked?

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Researchers at Cambridge University have come to the conclusion that our brains have reached their peak and it’s physically impossible for mankind to get any smarter.

This is based on how much energy the brain uses. Just 2% of our body weight it consumes 20% of its energy, as much as the heart muscle, and they don’t think we can give it any more.

Other scientists believe that the brain’s wiring can’t  get any better either. They’ve found that clever people have the most efficient wiring and can move messages very quickly through the brain compared to less intelligent people but see little scope for further development.

Is that it then? Have we really peaked with Big Brother, X Factor, Jeremy Clarkson, soaps, and all the reality TV shows?

Perhaps the answer lies in man-machine combinations. Already computers can do things we can’t (and vice versa). 70% of stocks in the world are traded using algorithms but is that better than rogue traders risking corporate money and our pension schemes?

IBM’s Watson computer has already won the US quiz show Jeopardy this year and robots, or robotic arms, assemble and spray cars and work in inhospitable environments. Computer programmes have been designed to mimic conversations (even with each other) and have been used in experimental psychotherapy settings. The development of artificial intelligence or AI has already gone beyond the realms of science fiction.

The Singularity Institute has been set up with donations from Google and Nasa to monitor these developments and includes people like the founders of PayPal and Skype as well as a philosopher, a gerontologist and a futurist. They believe the time will come, possibly by 2045, when robots will become clever enough to redesign themselves and become more intelligent than man.

Sci-fi fans know this already of course with Cyborgs, Terminator and replicators. HAL seems so yesterday!

Already neuro-prosthetic devices have been implanted in the brains of rats to boost their memory paving the way for developments which could help people with dementia or brain injuries.

On the negative side suppose a computer became so powerful that it could take over other computers, control the web, and use that power to improve itself so dramatically so that it became far more efficient and cleverer than humans? It could take control of the world’s assets (remember I mentioned the algorithmic trading of stocks). But hang on, haven’t I seen that film?