Long Island scientists have found a way to manipulate specific populations of brain cells, allowing them to erase bad memories and amplify good ones.
While the research in some ways seems to teeter on the border of science fiction, the aim of this novel foray into the brain, conducted by neuroscientists at Stony Brook University, is to better understand the organ, particularly in certain devastating disorders.
The research was conducted in mice and involved fine-tuning and erasing memories by manipulating one of the brain’s most basic compounds involved in memory, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. By tinkering with the chemical, researchers found a way to revive a memory that could have been lost and suppress another — at will.
“One of the really wild and crazy out-of-the box outcomes, I hope, would be to reverse or ameliorate the rate of decline in diseases like Alzheimers and others that have a memory decline component, like Parkinson’s,” said lead investigator Dr. Lorna Role, who chairs the department of neurobiology and is co-director of the university’s Neurosciences Institute.
Memories of emotionally charged experiences are inevitably strong, whether the recall is of something positive or negative, Role said Tuesday, noting that one goal of the research is to determine the mechanisms that underlie the strengthening of memory.
“The main focus of this study was looking into how acetylcholine might tune a synapse in a way that might affect memory,” Role said of acetylcholine moving faster than a lightning streak in a nerve impulse. A synapse is the junction between two nerve cells, an unimaginably tiny gap across which nerve impulses fire.
“What I am interested in is stimulating fond memories,” she said.
Being able to stimulate fond memories would tremendously aid people with any one of the numerous dementing illnesses. Role said family members of people with Alzheimer’s always comment on the difficulty of watching a once robust relative being no longer able to recall familiar faces or significant aspects of their lives.
“That’s the saddest part of the disease,” she said.
Manipulating the brain chemical also might aid treatments for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders, allowing doctors a non-pharmocological way to erase a potent, sometimes frightening, moment during battle that can haunt for a lifetime.
To induce a bad memory, Role and her colleagues gave mice tiny electric shocks to produce a traumatic experience. When the amount of acetylcholine was increased, the memory was amplified, lasting twice as long as normal. By dramatically dropping the amount of acetylcholine, the memory was erased forever.
The Stony Brook team could actually “see” what was going on in the heads of mice using optogenetics, an evolving research technique that utilizes light to stimulate specific populations of brain cells during the experiments. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory neuroscientist Adam Kepecs has also used the technique to discover precisely how the brain processes surprising events. As in Role’s case, his research also involved mice.
Fictional stories have relied on induced amnesia as a plot device for decades. The movie, “Universal Soldier,” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme uses such a plotline for soldiers whose minds had been wiped of the element of fear.
“The long-term goal of our research is that we would like to find ways — potentially independent of drug administration — to enhance or diminish the strength of specific memories, the good ones, and diminish the bad ones,” Role said.