Researchers at USC have developed a way to restore or suppress long-term memories by manipulating electrical signals in the brain, a discovery that has serious potential for both psychotherapy and hilarious pranks.
Scientists used glass needles to measure electrical activity in rats' hippocampi - the part of the brain responsible for converting short-term memory (which lasts about 5-10 seconds) into stored, long-term memory - as the rats performed a simple task. By then inducing or suppressing these signals, scientists were able to cause rats to either remember or forget how to perform the task in the long term (though the rats' short-term memory remained intact).
The ability to switch specific memories on or off has implications more profound than making your co-worker temporarily forget how to use a stapler for a Monday afternoon pick-me-up. Stanford psychiatry professor Robert Malenka, MD, PhD, tells the Los Angeles Times:
That they were able to achieve what they did is remarkable. They could improve the animal's performance dramatically — suggesting that in the very distant future, this kind of approach could have clinical applications.
Suppressing traumatic memories could prove a valuable psychotherapeutic tool, and restoring memories could have obvious benefits for treating conditions like dementia.
Scientists say that their next step will be to reproduce these results in primates, whose complex brains will present more of a challenge. Personally, I'm curious about how such an experiment would go over with elephants.
Photo by Averain