Are your memories really your own?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

trying to remember
I can practically hear this man saying, “think, think, think!”

I want you to think about your favorite activity. It can be anything, like playing video games, reading books, or even talking to best friends. Okay, now imagine waking up one morning and forgetting every memory related to that activity? That would be so scary! Alternatively, pretend you woke up with tons of random memories like having a friend you never actually met, or being good at a game you’ve never played! Seems pretty silly to think about, I know, but researchers from two different universities have figured out a way to create and erase memories!

For the first study, researchers from University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine) played a special sound to mice while stimulating their brains to release acetylcholine – a chemical related to storing information in our brains. The next day, researchers played many different tones and found that the mice could immediately recognize the tone they heard on the previous day. It was as if they’d known the sound their whole lives! The UC Irvine researchers explained that this technique can be useful to individuals who have trouble with learning and remembering information. “Disorders of learning and memory are a major issue facing many people… our hope is that our research will pave the way to prevent or resolve this global issue,” said Norman M. Weinberger, a researcher involved in the study. Well, while these scientists have been improving memory, professionals from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have created a way to erase them!

You see, the smallest details in life can trigger past experiences, such as sounds, smells, or even words. Sometimes, this phenomenon is good, like recalling important facts during a school test. Other times, it can be very bad. Take individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that causes anxiety. After a person has gone through a very scary event, such as war, insignificant details can trigger fear long after the danger has passed. The same thing can happen to drug addicts who are trying to ditch their bad habit. Seemingly innocent things can trigger substance-related thoughts and cause strong cravings, making it harder to quit!

mice pic
“How did we all end up under this thing?”

“Our memories make us who we are, but some of these memories can make life very difficult,” said Courtney Miller, a TSRI assistant professor who led the research. “Not unlike in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we’re looking for strategies to selectively eliminate evidence of past experiences related to drug abuse or a traumatic event.” The researchers studied the brains of drug-addicted mice, exposing them to environmental cues of sight, sound, and touch while they were high on drugs. That way, every time the creatures encountered one of those signs, their memory of feeling high would create strong cravings. However, when the mice were injected with special molecules that disrupt drug-related memory processes, the environment had no effect on cravings. It’s as if all those memories were erased!

Of course, the real question is, will this be useful for human beings? “We are focused on understanding what makes these memories different,” said Miller. “The hope is that our strategies may be applicable to other harmful memories, such as those that perpetuate smoking or PTSD.”

Wow, scientists are improving recollections on one side of the country and erasing them on the other. Maybe I should start writing in a journal every day in case my memories are altered!

Featured image courtesy of Davide Restivo on Flickr. Image of man trying to remember courtesy of Garrett Miller on Flickr. Image of mice courtesy of Polarqueen on Wikipedia.