Erasing Memories

Our brain is constantly making new memories by rearranging synaptic connections between neurons. This is facilitated by the plastic nature of our brains. Brain plasticity decreases with age; that is why it is much easier to learn new skills and information as a child, than as an adult. When we remember things, action potentials are fired along the same neuronal pathways that were activated when we first formed the memory.

The technology I have designed is able to manipulate the synaptic connections between neurons so as to erase memories. This is inspired by the technology used in the movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the movie, the characters visit a firm called Lacuna, Inc. which erases painful memories of an ended relationship. The mechanism is not explicitly explained, but the characters are asked to relive as many of their memories with their ex-partner as possible while under live brain imaging machines.

A technology like this would be extremely useful in combatting the effects of extremely traumatic events on victims (for example: soldiers, victims of kidnappings or abuse). It could also be used in matters of international security and espionage.

There are two ways in which this technology could work: one ideal, and one more realistic.

The ideal technology would work very similarly to the one in the movie. A patient would be able to relive the memories they wish to erase under the monitoring of a 3D brain imaging technology. This technology would have to be a great deal more powerful and more accurate than fMRI. It would have to be able to construct and magnify the pathway of neurons that are being activated by this memory at a cellular level. In this way, scientists could see the specific synaptic connections with which the memory is associated. I imagine the images produced by such a machine looking similar to the 3D modelling of Dr. Jeff Lichtman’s circuits. With the identification of the neuronal network, scientists could then surgically manipulate the synaptic connections in question, effectively erasing the memory. The physical tools required of this would have to be microscopic in size (nanobots anyone?) and be handled by a robot, as humans would not have the precision to carry out such a delicate task. In this way, specific memories could be targeted and erased. The main obstacle I can see in such a procedure, is how the scientists would determine how to ‘re-wire’ the synaptic connections.

The more realistic version of the technology appears in Philip K Dick’s short story Paycheck. In the story, the protagonist carries out a classified job for a certain amount of time, and then has all his memories of that time erased. This is different from the ‘ideal’ version of the technology in that specific memories are not targeted, but rather the patient’s memories are restored to that of an earlier time period. The patient would have a 3D brain scan done at the beginning of the time period, this too at a scale that shows the individual synaptic connections. After the time period is up, the scientists would use the same surgical tools mentioned above to restore the synaptic connections to those that were originally recorded. This overcomes the obstacle addressed in the ‘ideal’ technology.

Realistically speaking, technology like this is a long ways away. We have yet to model the mammalian brain at a cellular level, though the technology in Dr. Licthman’s lab is on its way to doing so. A supremely faster, non-invasive version of such modelling is what would be needed for the procedure I’ve outlined to take place. Though neuroscience is fast developing, I don’t expect such technology to have been developed in my lifetime.

The surgical tools, on the other hand, have precedents all over the medical world (though not on such a small scale). With the state of innovation in biomedical engineering, I could expect such a technology to be developed in the next few decades.

3 responses to “Erasing Memories”

  1. Dhruv Mohnot says:

    Wow, really interesting technology. It seems to be the exact opposite of what I’ve created! It definitely seems to have multiple practical applications.

  2. Carlos Aizenman says:

    Also used on the film Men in Black.
    Actually, check this out, some folks are already doing a version of this in rats:

  3. Brianna Margaret Cathey says:

    Way to think outside of the box on this one – it seems most want to maximize the amount of information that can be stored and retrieved in the brain. However, if memories that somehow inhibit the function an individual by negatively influencing decision-making and social interaction, this could be really useful! Awesome job!

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