Mousing Over Your Memories: Futuristic Study Shows How Memories Can Be Manipulated In Mice
In the Phillip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” which was later adapted into two film versions of “Total Recall,” an ordinary clerk living in the near future longs to visit Mars, a tony vacation destination he can’t afford on his salary.
However, there is a company that can implant memories for you on the cheap, giving you the illusion of having gone there–plus they’ll make you an exotic character like a secret agent to boot.
This being Phillip K. Dick and sci-fi in general, things go wrong, of course, with real memories and false one getting jumbled up in a huge conflagration showing the fragility of what we believe to be true and the folly of messing with our brains.
But a group of French scientists have failed to heed the warning sounded by Dick. In a slightly alarming study conducted at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the researchers have managed to implant false memories in a group of five mice, giving them recollections of events that never occurred.
The study looked at the brain activity of the mice as they explored a large, open area. As the mice meandered around, taking in their new surroundings, the researchers could monitor the “place cells” in their brains as they lit up. Each individual place cell is activated by information given to the brain from a location; taken together, a spatial map is created in the brain, which we can access later in the form of memory.
When the mice napped later, the researchers could see the place cells lighting up again ad their brains “replayed” the memory of exploring the new space. (The brain is thought to replay experiences while we sleep in order to create long-term memories.
So, having recorded the wanderings of the mice, the researchers could know which place cell was associated with which location. When a place cell linked to a particular place lit up, the researchers simultaneously activated the brain’s pleasure centers. This caused the mice to associate that location with a reward of some kind, like a piece of cheese, making it think it had found one there.
The next time the mice were released into the chamber, they didn’t explore randomly–they headed straight to where they believed they had been rewarded with a nice chunk of cheddar.
So, while that false-memory trip to Mars may still be a ways off, there is little doubt that government scientists are already well on their way to exploring false memory implantation in humans, don’t you think?
Be careful what you believe you remember; it may just be phantom cheese.