Erasing specific memories

As researchers learn more about how memory works, the possibility of targeted amnesia becomes more feasible. Scientists recently succeeded in wiping out a nasty memory from the mind of a genetically-engineered mouse. By altering the activity of a specific enzyme, they affected a mouse's ability to recall the experience of being shocked. The team from the Medical College of Georgia and the East China Normal University reported their findings in the science journal Neuron. From Science news:
Insight from such experiments may one day lead to therapies that can erase traumatic memories for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or wipe clean drug-associated cues that lead addicts to relapse.

“We should never think of memories as being fixed,” says Howard Eichenbaum, a neuroscientist at Boston University. “They are constantly being renovated and restructured.”

Eichenbaum is not convinced that Tsien and his colleagues have erased the mice’s memories. Altering a memory so that it can’t be recalled under certain circumstances might produce similar results, he says. “We never know for sure that it’s really gone,” he says.

But if chemicals can help someone specifically forget painful or traumatic memories, it may be irrelevant whether the memories are entirely erased or are just altered beyond recognition, Eichenbaum says.
"Selective memory"


  1. They also have no way of knowing what other memories went away, along with the tageted memory.

    I mean, sure—the mouse didn’t recall a shock. But what other narratives from its history are now gone?

    No one knows what a mouse thinks about when no one is watching!

  2. Is some sort of pre-release version of this drug that allowed the Republican convention speech-givers to entirely forget who had been President the previous 7.5 years?

  3. Sounds like a real-life version of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ is right around the corner!

  4. Is that really healthy? I mean people’s experiences, positive & negative, influence who they grow to be. If you don’t remember your own history, aren’t you doomed to repeat it?

  5. Haven’t seen Sunshine myself, but the idea reminds me of Paycheck — add this to a standard NDA, and you’ll make sure your trade secrets remain secret.

  6. I was going to reference Eternal Sunshine, too. :)

    I think this could be interesting, though I could see it being abused in the hands of the wrong people.

    I’d rather keep my memories than have someone meddle with them.

  7. For those of you who think that erasing memories is somehow dehumanizing, you’ve never peed your pants while standing on third base during little league playoffs.

  8. ENORMO @10

    I almost peed my pants when I read your comment. Thanks for the laugh of the day (so far)…

  9. Hmmmm. Erase the memory, but will it erase all the emotions and attitudes around a memory? That’s most important question. I forget things all the time, but I’m pretty sure a lot of my psychological states are effected by these long forgotten memories.

  10. I am in favor of this. Whatever its risks, it has major potential to ease suffering and even prevent suicides in an ethical manner (when freely chosen by the suffering person).

  11. Indeed, I had been going to ask, does no one listen to Radiolab?
    But the fact it’s an episode from two years ago, and this is apparently become news all across the internet, well… I’m astonished by.

    BBC news will have this story in about four months, seeing it’s hit the internet now.

  12. I’m hopeful this will help to erase the memory of the noddly appendaged tongue photo posted here a few months back.

  13. In humans at least, the conscious mind is a tiny thing compared to the subconscious mind. ‘Erasing’ a conscious memory doesn’t necessarily mean eradicating it. It might just break the link that allows you to recall it. For traumatic memories, that could leave them to fester without any means of truly moving beyond them. I have PTSD. I had repressed memories for forty years until I finally coughed them up and spit them out. Imagine having the emotions associated with the trauma without the ability to understand why. That would be horrible.

  14. I think this is a really bad idea. Like Antinous, I have PTSD. I’ve heard discussion of this brain wipe treatment kicking around various PTSD circles. Most folks think it is a terrible idea and that those who would suggest it for PTSD sufferers are not very familiar with the condition.

    Trauma gets embedded on many different levels. To erase a memory will not erase the trauma. One needs to learn to experience the memory without becoming overwhelmed by it, without being drawn into it. For those in traumatic stress, there is a tendency to loop. It is not fun. It is not pretty.

    Even those of us with PTSD, maybe especially those of us with PTSD, need our memories. They are tools for survival.

    I put this whole memory-wipe idea in the same rubbish bin I’d put that 1950’s practice of putting mothers in labor into twilight sleep. They’d be in twice the pain while giving birth, but not remember any of it, not the pain and not the joy. Who is served by that, I’d like to know?

  15. See, not I thought of those wands in “Men in Black”

    That said, it is a horrifying idea when thought of in relation to the current US government.

  16. This discovery was actually made by another lab last year, but the Medical College of Georgia stole the idea and then wiped the memories of the guys who really developed it.

  17. Also, not exactly memory per se, but go watch “Francis” with Jessica Lange — the film about Francis Farmer. It’s a chilling film about what happens when other people don’t like what’s in your brain. And it really happened.

  18. @Enormo #12

    Yes, it might be traumatic for you, but I bet you’ve never forgotten to relieve yourself in the future before going at bat.

    If say, you had some of procedure to forget it at that age, you might be doomed to repeat it. Or worse, everyone teases you about it, yet you don’t recall the actual event.

    This technology is a very slippery slope.

  19. don’t worry too much. It’s going to be a lot cheaper just to have you killed for quite a while to come yet.

  20. It’s a truism that it’s somehow good for you to bring bad memories into consciousness, but there’s (a) little to no scientific evidence for any benefit from this and (b) even less scientific evidence that repressed memories exist.

    This is not to say we understand how the brain would cope with an erased memory.

    1. Well, Sis, I invite you to come up with another explanation of why it took me almost forty years to remember my father trying to murder me.

  21. @ MDH, #20

    Exactly the right question.

    Who will have the occasion and the power and the interest to use such a technology ?


  22. Having to relive a traumatic event over and over in your mind is a form of psychological torture the brain commits on itself. If there are drugs that can short circuit this destructive pattern, let’s put them on the table.

  23. As a neuroscientist, this is completely impossible. This is absolutely not how the brain works. There is not a single ‘cell’ you can target that contains a single ‘memory’. There are so many reasons why this will never, ever be possible, the main one being, as stated, this is absolutely not how the brain works.

  24. That’s horrible, Antinous! I don’t know the specifics of your experience and it would be complete speculation to comment.

    But think about the situation – common for a while there – where a person “recovers” impossible memories of satanic abuse or being abducted by aliens. It’s remarkably easy to implant memories under suggestion (see, e.g., the work of Elizabeth Loftus). And the harm suffered by the victims of recovered memory therapy is serious and real. It’s not just a harmless placebo.

    1. a person “recovers” impossible memories of satanic abuse or being abducted by aliens

      The sky was blue before science unveiled the wavelengths of visible light. Just because some people thought that the sky was blue paint doesn’t mean that it wasn’t blue before science documented it.

      Many people remember heretofore-forgotten traumatic memories decades later. Just because a few people abused the notion doesn’t make it a hoax. Ask Teresa about attitudes toward narcoleptics before neuroscience got a clue that it wasn’t just laziness.

  25. Sister Y,

    Am I reading you wrong, or are you somehow equating thinking this memory-removal treatment is a bad idea with advocating some kind of funky memory-recovery therapy?

    There are all different ways of using those memories, it doesn’t always happen in a therapist’s office and it isn’t always an intellectual process.

    I’ve had friends who had repressed memories come up when they were practicing the Alexander Method (I haven’t done it, I have no opinions about it.) I’ve had some pretty gnarly memories come up during a ten-day Vipassana course. For me there was not a huge amount of detail in the memories, just a recollection of a pretty primal emotional state. It wasn’t fun, but it was a great release. Kind of like popping a spiritual zit.

    I’d been struggling to deal with the remembered trauma for about four years. I’d done my share of looping in the early days. It was rough, it was painful. There were times when, given the choice, I would have gleefully opted to have some gray matter fried in order to remove the memory. Or maybe not. I’d like to think not, if the choice had really been there. Because those are my memories and it was my experience and I learned a lot from what happened to me. It has changed me and it has not been easy, but I’m at that point where I would not go back to who I was, the uninjured me, for anything.

    You can’t erase the past. You can’t make the world all sunshine and light. We need our dark history too. Certainly we don’t need artificial memories of aliens probing our backsides or satanic weirdness. But the weird shit we really have lived through? Even if it was a horrible experience? It is ours. We own it.

    And sometimes you need to remember just to make sure it never happens again.

  26. Pipenta – I’m advocating skepticism toward recovered memories of all kinds.

    And I wouldn’t want to take anyone’s dark history away from him against his will – but people should be free to choose to suffer, or not.

  27. All these comments and no mention of Dianetics?

    L. Ron Hubbard was on to something there (too bad it was hoarding cash)

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