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It is the medical breakthrough which could cheer us up – boffins have found a way to banish bad memories for our brains forever.
In news that will be particularly good for England football fans, experts have developed a way to delete unwanted memories from the brain.
The process mirrors the storyline in the hit movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind although it fails to bring happiness to Jim Carrey’s character.
University of Toronto experts have discovered that although there are millions of brain cells in the brain, only a handful are linked to bad memories.
And in groundbreaking studies on mice, they were able to pinpoint those brain cells associated with “fear or threat” memories – and delete them.
Crucially, the researchers found they could wipe away single, specific memories while leaving other memories intact.
The next step will be testing the treatment in people.
Prof Sheena Josselyn, who led the research, told the world’s biggest conference in Boston: “These findings offer proof-of-principle that treatments do not need to affect the entire body or even entire brain.
“Our results indicate that a critical component of a fear or memory may reside in a small portion of neurons and that treatments could be targeted to just these neurons.”
Memory is located in various parts of the brain.
But Prof Josselyn’s team found that neurons – the brain cells – that are encoded with “fear or threat” memories are in one part of the brain while other parts of the memory are elsewhere.
Working with mice in the lab, they targeted just those cells chemically – disrupting their ability to keep that unpleasant memory alive.
Prof Josselyn said: “Those neurons that we selected were hugely important to that memory, because genetically ablating just this small portion of neurons was sufficient to disrupt this specific memory, as if this specific memory had been erased.”
Erasing bad memories could eventually help rape survivors or returning soldiers suffering from PTSD.
But there could be ethical hurdles. Some ethicists believe that deleting memories deletes a vital part of a person’s identity.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Prof Josselyn, a senior sceintist at the University of Toronto, said: “There are huge ethical implications and considerations.
“Just because something is possible, does not mean that it should be done.
“Our studies provide a proof-of-principle. Basically, that erasing a memory is possible.
“However, our society needs to develop ethical policies around the potential use of this.”
She added: “Our findings suggest that one day it could be possible to treat people with PTSD by erasing these traumatic memories. In these people, the memories are intrusive and disrupt their everyday lives.
“However, there could be potential downsides, especially when applied to people who would like to get rid of a bad memory such as a messy break up.
“We all learn from our mistakes. If we erase the memory of our mistakes, what is to keep us from repeating them?”
The potential dilemma echoes scenes from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the characters played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet both undergo treatment to delete each other from their memories.
In the film, scientists ask the characters to remember their unwanted memories in order to target them with small electric shocks.
But the treatment goes drastically wrong, when the characters discover they in fact wanted to hold on to the memories after all.
Asked about the film and how it compares to the research, Prof Josselyn said: “I guess there may be some similarities. But I wasn’t inspired by the movie.”
Separately, the researchers found that as well as erasing bad memories, they could also delete neurons linked to drug addiction.
Prof Josselyn explained: “We also showed that it is possible to erase a cocaine-memory in mice. Drug addiction is a chronically relapsing brain disease.
“One obstacle to the treatment of drug abuse (including cocaine abuse) is the high incidence of relapse to drug-taking following months, or even years, of abstinence.”
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