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Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

Posted May 08, 2009 12:00 AM by Sharkles

The human experience is paved with ups and downs. There are happy moments and ones we'd rather forget. But what if you could edit or even delete certain memories forever?

Researchers are studying the possibility of editing memories via a single substance in the brain. They also say they're getting closer to detecting and understanding critical memory molecules. Although studies thus far have been conducted only on mice and rats, scientists are saying that the memory system is "likely to work almost identically" on humans.

If successful, the procedure could erase fears, bad habits or addictions, and even traumatic losses.

Speed-dialing Information

Scientists have been trying to understand the human brain for centuries. Despite advances man in space exploration and technology, the brain remains elusive. However, efforts continue to understand how the human brain – a mere clump of tissue - captures and stores all the information it does.

Previous research suggests that the brain operates on a "biological speed-dial". In this analogy, the brain is stimulated by an experience (e.g., a word) and quickly sends that stimulus to a larger network of cells, each of which adds detail such as sight, sound or smell. The brain retains the memory by growing thicker communication lines between the cells.

While this theory is substantial, scientists are still trying to figure out how the brain performs this function.

Pinpointing Molecules

In 1999, Dr. Jeff Lichtman and Joshua R. Sanes of Harvard published a list of 117 molecules that were involved in creating "long-term potentiation" – or lasting speed-dial connections with a neighbor, in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

At the time, Lichtman and Sanes didn't see their list as being particularly clarifying, but one of the substances on their list has turned out to have "unusual properties".

Now, Dr. Todd C. Sacktor and André A. Fenton have begun researching the molecule known as PKMzeta. According to Sacktor, his father told him to study this particular molecule before his death. Sacktor's father's advice eventually led to Sacktor and his team to find that PKMzeta was present in activated cells when they were "dialed" by a neighboring neuron.

Further, they learned that PKMzeta molecules swarmed to the fingerlike connections throughout brain cells and strengthened them. Once there, the PKMzeta cells remained indefinitely.

Undoing PKMzeta's Effects

Dr. André A. Fenton has already used the research on PKMzeta to teach animals strong memories. For one test, Fenton taught animals to move through a small chamber to avoid a small electric shock.

The memories were so strong in the animal that even when it was placed in the chamber again months later, it still remembered how to avoid the shock. However, once the same animals had been injected with ZIP, a drug that interferes with PKMzeta, the animals' memories of the chamber were essentially erased.

Similar experiments have been performed by Yadin Dudai at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Dudai found that one dose of ZIP caused rats to forget a "strong disgust" they'd developed for a taste that had made them sick three months earlier.

Endless Possibilities Come with Ethical Dilemmas

With this new knowledge comes an array of scientific and ethical questions that cannot be answered at this time. Should people erase certain traumas or addictions just because they can?

Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist at Harvard, argues the moral implications of editing memories. The New York Times describes Hymans's argument as such: "if traumatic memories are like malicious stalkers, then troubling memories — and a healthy dread of them — form the foundation of a moral conscience."

Other, larger social concerns focus on the fact that humans already use smart drugs and performance enhancers. Hyman see this as problematic because "a substance that actually improved memory could lead to an arms race."

Many questions and doubts remain. Neuroscientist Thomas J. Carew of the University of California, Irvine says "There is not going to be one, single memory molecule, the system is just not that simple." Although the answers are still unclear, the possibility remains and researchers continue to work towards this goal.

Personally, I cannot help but think of the television show Dollhouse, where human memories are erased and people are imprinted with a customizable set of memories to produce human soldiers. Crazy? Maybe. But who knows what types of possibilities memory editing could create.

What do you think?

  • Should people edit memories?
  • Are the larger social implications and risks worth it?

Resources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/health/research/06brain.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1241704903-sRvEN716SQh6nIlsdn4MCg

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#1

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/08/2009 2:23 AM

"But what if you could edit or even delete certain memories forever?"

Try replacing the word "you" in that sentence with "the government" or worse "powerful corporations" and ride that slippery slope. It ain't pretty.

Some memories are painful, some are beautiful. The tapestry is called life.

As far as "the human brain – a mere clump of tissue" goes, that's like saying the internet is just a bunch of computers. Many would take issue with the 'mere' tissue stance, and rightfully so. We may only have a hundred billion brain cells but it's all the quadrillions of dynamic interconnections between them that make us what we are.

Thanks but no thanks, I'll take the ups and downs and deal with them. It's what makes me different from the machines I design.

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#2
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Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/08/2009 7:04 AM

They will probably find that there is a gene that is unique to politicians that not only allows the politician to forget, but to telepathically erase that memory from their voting constituents.

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#4
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Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/08/2009 7:36 AM

As far as "the human brain – a mere clump of tissue" goes, that's like saying the internet is just a bunch of computers.

Good point, Stevem. When I was reading the original reports, I got the sense that researchers were thinking as if they were primative beings - as in, "well, the brain is just a mass of tissue...so, how exactly does it work". Kind of like if we were discovering it for the first time we'd see the brain not as a brain, but as a 'clump of tissue'. From there, we'd be lefto decipher its function and purpose.

I was just trying to show it for what it looks like at first glance, rather than the scientific complexities behind it. Sorry for any miscommunication.

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Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/08/2009 12:58 PM

No apology necessary.

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#3

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/08/2009 7:27 AM

I agree with Stevem. Add 'criminals' to the list of who might be interested in erasing your memories for you.

The horse has left the barn on this one. While we debate the ethics of "therapeutic forgetting" the drugs are out there and in one form or another are available to organized crime. The classic "date rape" drugs have been on the go for some time. Add the more selective memory erasers, like propanalol or this "ZIP", it can only make the present situation worse.

These drugs should not be approved unless there is also a readily available, inexpensive test also made available to the public, so that it's possible to monitor for abuse of the substance.

And here's a second thought: have any of these researchers been asked to go the extra mile, and come up with an "anti-ZIP" that would RESTORE your memory? Maybe it shouldn't be allowed until and unless they have a product that makes it reversible as well.

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#5

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/08/2009 10:21 AM

The flaw I see with their tests is the fact that they are only testing one memory at a time. Now the rat has a memory...now it doesn't. How do we know that these drugs don't wipe out all the memories and leaves only primitive instincts (e.g. eat, drink, sleep, etc.)? Some of these ethical questions are irrelevant until they can target specific memories, not just and all-or-none type drug.

How is this "ZIP" drug any different than electro-shock therapy (other than potentially being less painful)? Without our memories and experiences we'll be reduced to a child-like state without a child's ability to rapidly grow neuron connections (i.e. learn).

As it is now, it will be painfully obvious if a human is administered this drug. They will basically be turned into a zombie with a learning disability. And once they realize the state they're in, I'm sure they'll hunger for brains!...metaphorically of course.

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#6

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/08/2009 12:05 PM

Hi Sharkles - Great article. Your write-up reminded me of a documentary, "The Lobotomist", that I saw on public TV recently, about the work, here in the U.S., of Dr. Walter Freeman. Your article also reminded me of a Jim Carrey movie I still need to catch on DVD, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Food for thought, what you wrote. Enjoyed reading your piece! - Larry

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#8

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/08/2009 4:47 PM

A long, but well written post -- very interesting idea.

I think I'm with the rest of the commenters in here. In today's world, a memory alteration product would not make it to production. On the off-chance it did (in some country), it would be sold to make money; what actually happens to the patient wouldn't be of interest, good or bad.

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#9

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/09/2009 11:32 AM

The medical science is well established to handle physical ailments of body.Psychiatry and Nero related sciences are just emerging.I recall once got treated by a leading psychiatrist, who could pass some auto suggestion and got me out of depression and directed me to take further decisions the area where I was struggling.But the drugs/capsules prescribed started giving me severe head aches and I discarded.

De addictions and behavioural corrections are curable by auto suggestions, hypnotic therapies and of course by gurus or mentors and even by safe homeo medicines.The readiness of of the patient towards change is of critical importance.Brain the most complex part of the physical body.

Positive research goals to understand it's complexity for human betterment with proven base is of critical importance like what is being done in approval of medical drugs.

Purposeful focus against nature can lead to irreversible damage.

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#10

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/09/2009 3:50 PM

I would of course want to rewrite or edit out the mediocre or bad things of my life.

Of course that would not necessarily mean that they didn't happen.

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Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/09/2009 5:34 PM

Oh they happened alright. You're just suddenly incapable of learning from your mistakes. Blissful ignorance is just another word for hell, imo.

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#12

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/10/2009 9:44 AM

Christ, one learns from your mistakes and make adjustments. This is what separates us from the amebas.

As far as a do over, hell the government and other action committees is allready rewritting our history books to make it more politically correct. And more ethnic sensitive.

No matter how it distorts the actually history that took place. Right now its to a point of what actually happened?

Is the US history something to be proud of.......no, but its what made us strong, the bad along with the good.

Its one thing to say, "should have", its another thing to say...."it nevered happened"

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#13

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/10/2009 8:58 PM

So we will get a Amnesia pill? perfect for criminals, you saw something your didn't suppose to see? no more killing, just erase the memory. importnat witnesses? erase their memory.

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#14

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/11/2009 5:25 PM

I am the sum total of my memories, and what they teach me. Why would I want to kill part of myself?

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#15

Re: Would You Want to Edit Your Own Life Story?

05/19/2009 8:12 PM

My experiences and my memories, both good and bad, are all constituents in a larger part that make up my mentality and subsequently who I am. Why would I want to erase an experience?

1) I'm the kind of person that learns from them, so erasing them may lead to my experiencing it again.

2) I imagine that there would be a part of me that is missing. My personality would probably change, and who I am would most likely change.

So asking if I would voluntarily have my memories, and my personlity erased so as to avoid embarassing myself, no. I would not. I could not.

One other thing to note is that even when the technology gets to the point that they can identify individual memories, what happens when they delete the wrong one?

But to answer the original question "Should people edit memories?"... I don't care what they do, as long as they don't edit mine.

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