It seems like a movie plot, but scientists have developed a way to erase specific memories in mice while leaving others intact and not damaging the brain.
By manipulating levels of an important protein in the brain, certain memories can be selectively deleted, researchers led by neurobiologist Joe Tsien of the Medical College of Georgia reported in the journal Neuron.
While some experts have suggested there could be value in erasing certain memories in people such as wartime traumas, Tsien doubted this could be done as it was in mice. Tsien also questioned the wisdom of wiping out a person's memories.
"All memories, including the painful emotional memories, have their purposes. We learn great lessons from those memories or experiences so we can avoid making the same kinds of mistakes again, and help us to adapt down the road," Tsien said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
The study focused on a protein called alpha-CaMKII involved in learning and memory. The scientists manipulated alpha-CaMKII activity in the brains of genetically modified mice to influence the retrieval of short-term and long-term memories.
Mice that were made to recall things such a mild electric shock at the same time that the protein was turned up in their brain seemed to lose the memory of the shock while not forgetting anything else, the researchers said.
Technique might not apply in humans
"The human brain is so complex and dramatically different from the mouse brain. That's why I say I don't think it's possible you can do the same thing in humans," Tsien said.
"However, if that happens in my lifetime, I wouldn't be surprised either," Tsien added.
The 2004 film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" explored the idea of selectively erasing memories. Two former lovers undergo procedures to wipe out the memory of one another after their relationship falls apart.
"If one wants to get rid of a bad relationship with another person, and is hoping to have a pill to erase that person or relationship, it's not the solution," Tsien said.