Memories, especially traumatic, painful and anxiety-causing ones, can be a person’s worst enemy because they can keep one from going about things in a normal way. Even worse, memories have the power to cripple a person in every way possible as it can make one linger on a past event and just stop moving forward.
The question is: if there was a way, should people be given the option to forget such terrible memories? The answer might be up for debate, but for now, let’s at least start getting comfortable with the idea that there might be a way to selectively erase a person’s worst memories.
According to research recently published in the journal Current Biology, a team of neuroscientists from the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and McGill University have discovered that by deactivating certain proteins in the brain, it will be possible to make a person forget specific memories to the point that his/her brain would become totally incapable of recalling that memory.
The approach works by blocking one or both of these proteins in the brain: Protein kinase M molecules (PKM) which play a huge role in forming memories that can be triggered by external stimuli; or KIBRA proteins which protect PKM and ensure they are constantly active. Together, these proteins help keep a memory alive. Disrupting either can result in partial or complete memory loss.
That’s just the beginning, though. The researchers point out that there are two types of memories: associative and non-associative. Associative memories relate directly to an incident, while non-associative memories relate to something incidental.
As exemplified by Professor Samuel Schacher (PhD), one of the study’s lead authors, it’s like being mugged in a dark alley, then seeing a mailbox during or some time after the attack. Being afraid of dark alleys is associative because it directly links the dark alley with the assault. In a way, it can be a good memory to have because it can make one more careful, especially when it comes to passing dark alleys.
On the other hand, being afraid of mailboxes is non-associative. It can make one remember the crime that happened, but it doesn’t really help in any way because there’s just no sense in staying away from mailboxes to avoid being victimized, right? This is the type of memory that the research team believes will be beneficial to forget. By deleting this trigger, a person won’t have to experience unnecessary anxiety, but will be able to stay alert about lessons gained from past important (though awful) memories.
So far, researchers have been able to demonstrate that they could erase either associative or non-associative memory by using an electrical shock to disrupt the PKM molecule in their animal test subject, the humble sea slug, chosen for the experiment because of its relatively uncomplicated nervous system. The next step is determining which proteins will trigger partial memory erasure, and which will cause total memory erasure. By partial, the researchers mean the memory can still be accessed or recalled if needed. By total, it means wiping out the memory completely, with no possible way whatsoever to bring it back.
It’s only a prospect for now. But there’s already skepticism about the implications of having such procedure available. As one of the team members, Wayne Sossin, so aptly put it, our memories are a vital part of our identity, and erasing one or more of those memories would raise ethical issues. It would almost be equivalent to changing one’s personality or removing something that makes a person unique.
Still, it also can’t be denied that there are potential benefits that can be gained from having this ‘power’ to kind of manipulate one’s memories. As the authors noted, it could help in fighting debilitating conditions like severe anxiety disorder, PTSD and even some forms of addiction.
Getting back to reality, however, there’s the matter of the experiment having only been proven to work in slugs. Making it work in humans is a totally different and more complicated story.
But the seed has been sown, so to speak. And if a safe and effective memory-erasing procedure can eventually be developed, it’s going to be a brand new world. And we mean that literally for those who choose to have certain memories of theirs deleted forever.