"How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd...," quotes actress Kirsten Dunst's character in the 2004 film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", from an Alexander Pope poem.
In the movie, breakthrough medical technology can single out specific painful memories to be erased from one's mind, to help patients move on with their lives. Now collaborating researchers from the University of Toronto, Seoul, Korea and Bristol have invented a similar kind of technology in the real world, according to PhyOrg.com.
The new technology doesn't work exactly like it does in the movie. For instance, in the film, bizarre brain-probing devices are somehow capable of singling out specific memories to be erased, such as memories of people, events or places, typically as a way to move on after a bad relationship. Though fanciful, that kind of breakthrough remains hopelessly fictional.
Rather than erase specific memories (as if they have a particular location in the brain), the new technology instead targets your body's memories about certain kinds of chronic pain. It won't make you forget your last relationship, or the death of a pet, but it will help someone who is experiencing residual neuropathic pain get relief.
The treatment is specifically designed for chronic pain sufferers who may have malfunctioning synaptic pathways which cause them to re-experience their pain due to the abnormal persistence of the mental record of that pain.
By inhibiting a molecule called PKM zeta — a molecule involved in the storage of memories that resides a part of the brain involved in the perception of pain — researchers have successfully eliminated the painful memory at the heart of some of these kinds of neuropathic pain. Or at least, the tests have so far been successful on mice.
"If this translates to humans, it may be possible one day to treat some forms of chronic pain by inhibiting PKM zeta or other molecules involved in the storage of the painful memory," said professor Graham Collingridge from the University of Bristol. "The challenge will be to target the drug so that it inhibits painful memories but not other forms of memory."
In other words, the technology still needs a lot of work before it can be used on humans. But even at this early stage of development, it proves that the line between science and science fiction can be very thin indeed.