So goes the famous Alexander Pope poem: “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned.”
The poem inspired the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," which features a futuristic technology that allows individuals to erase their negative or traumatic memories. Now, it turns out, that technology may no longer be fictional. Neuroscientists from the Columbia University Medical Center and McGill University have successfully erased certain memories from sea slug neurons, and the method could be applicable to human brains too, reports Seeker.
Researchers pulled off the feat by manipulating proteins in the brain that are essential to memory formation. Protein kinase M molecules (PKM) have been shown to facilitate the creation and maintenance of memories, and another protein, KIBRA, plays a crucial role in protecting the PKMs. Disruption to either of these proteins can produce partial or complete memory erasure, the researchers found.
Of particular importance is the fact that no damage is done to neurons themselves when these proteins are disrupted. When a memory is erased, the neuronal function simply returns to the state it was in before the memory was created.
“When the activity of this [PKM] molecule is inhibited, the synaptic strength returns to its previous value and the memory is erased,” explained Wayne Sossin, a member of the research team.
The principal application for the technology, if it can be shown to be safe for humans, will be for erasing memories which trigger anxiety or trauma. Individuals suffering from PTSD or abuse could glean benefits from erasing such memories selectively, especially when those memories prompt other unhealthy emotional reactions that impact a person's life in a negative way.
It's not meant to be for people that want help moving on from a broken heart, like in the movie. A broken heart, or a past relationship, is a complicated web of memories that would be extremely difficult to erase selectively. But that doesn't mean a similar application couldn't one day be developed. The technology has a long way to go from sea slug memories to human ones, though.
The question is at least worth asking, at this point: Would you choose to erase your most painful memories, if that was an option?
Of course, there are a number of ethical hurdles that come with making this kind of technology available to humans too. The power to manipulate the recollection of our pasts could be dangerous if wielded by the wrong forces. Our memories are essential to our perception of ourselves; they are a major part of our personal identity. If we change our memories, we might change ourselves, and that could lead us into some scary dystopian territory.
The study was published in the journal Current Biology.