Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mouse: Scientists Erase Mice's Memories

By Eliza Strickland | October 22, 2008 3:27 pm

eternal sunshineBy manipulating a single protein found in the brains of mice, researchers can wipe out a mouse’s specific, traumatic memory without damaging brain cells, a new study reports. While the process is nowhere near ready for testing in humans, researchers say it does raise the possibility of novel treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. “While memories are great teachers and obviously crucial for survival and adaptation, selectively removing incapacitating memories, such as traumatic war memories or an unwanted fear, could help many people live better lives,” said [lead researcher] Joe Tsien [Telegraph].

Humans have the same so-called “memory molecule” in our brains, and the announcement is certain to prompt speculation that sci-fi scenarios of memory erasure are almost upon us. The concept was the premise of the popular 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which two former lovers pay a “memory-erasure” service to expunge the unhappy affair from their minds [HealthDay News].

In the study, published in the journal Neuron [subscription required], researchers created genetically engineered mice that had elevated levels of a brain protein called CaMKII, and also fashioned a chemical inhibitor that allowed them to turn the protein “off” and “on” at will. They then traumatized the mice by placing them in a chamber where they shocked their paws, causing the mice to associate the chamber with pain. Mice that had the CaMKII protein turned on before they were brought to the chamber the next time showed no fear, but they retained their memories of other habitats and objects.

A month later, the effect still held: Whereas the month-old memories of foot-shock … caused normal mice to freeze with fear when placed in original testing environment, mice with overexpressed αCaMKII appeared comparatively blasé in the same environment. Many researchers believe CaMKII to be “the key molecule underlying learning and memory,” commented neuroscientist Mark Mayford [The Scientist], and the new study elegantly reaffirms that belief.

Related Content:
80beats: Can Erasing a Drug Memory Erase the Need for a Fix?
DISCOVER: Conquering Your Fears, One Synapse at a Time
DISCOVER: Is It Possible to Erase a Single Memory?

Image: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

MORE ABOUT: memory, mental health, PTSD
  • Isabella

    I think this is pretty mean. If all of a sudden one of your most beloved family members lost their memory and didn’t know you anymore. It would be really depressing. I’m against this.

  • Bystander

    I think this is pretty mean. If all of a sudden I could type complete sentences. And get a solid grasp on reading comprehension. It would be really enlightening. I’m against this.

    On another note, this seems very sci-fi to me. It would be incredible to achieve selective memory modification in humans. Maybe this research could lead us to other alternatives for Alzheimer’s patients in a sort of memory restorative approach. I mean, if we can ‘search and destroy’ the debilitating memories… shouldn’t we also be able to refresh the diminishing ones that allow us to function in daily life as well?

  • http://- teach456

    To Bystander: Children are encouraged to peruse this site for Science Enrichment – please consider this when evaluating a post.

  • http://none NreeK

    This has great potential for people with PTSD. It would be interesting to see if once their memories were removed whether their compensatory / avoidant etc. behaviours would change.

    On the negative side I can imagine this would be quite a nasty technology in the hands of certain governments for brainwashing or “re-education”!

  • Angie

    Can folks really get bad memories removed? That might be of help. Wouldn´t that improve communication for all people with memories they´d rather get rid of?


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