Real-Life Inception? Scientists Implant Fabricated Memories in Mice

Monday, 09 March 2015 - 4:22PM
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Monday, 09 March 2015 - 4:22PM

Have scientists discovered a real-life method for incepting false memories? Researchers from Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution claim that they have successfully implanted memories into the brains of sleeping mice.


Scientists have already demonstrated that they are able to manipulate memories; for example, last summer researchers were able to erase and restore fear memories in rats. But this experiment marks the first time an entirely artificial memory has been successfully incepted into an animal's brain. 


For the study, Karim Benchenane and his team isolated a specific cell that was activated in the mice's brains when they occupied a certain place. Then, when the mice were sleeping, a computer would alert the researchers when that place cell was showing activity, and used electrodes to stimulate the portion of their brains associated with reward. When the mice awoke, they would immediately make an effort to travel to that location, while the control group would simply wander aimlessly.


"By triggering intracranial rewarding stimulations by place cell spikes during sleep, we induced an explicit memory trace, leading to a goal-directed behavior toward the place field," the authors wrote in their paper.


"The mouse develops a goal-directed behavior to go towards the place," Benchenane told New Scientist. "It proves that it's not an automatic behavior. What we create is an association between a particular place and a reward that can be consciously accessed by the mouse."


At first blush, this may just seem like a simple case of Pavlovian conditioning, rather than the inception of a memory. But the authors, as well as neuroscientists at other institutions, insist that the word "goal-directed" is the key term, as their behavior clearly demonstrates that they are falsely remembering a reward, rather than just expecting one.


"The mouse is remembering enough abstract information to think 'I want to go to a certain place', and go there when it wakes up," said neuroscientist Neil Burgess at University College London. "It's a bigger breakthrough [than previous studies] because it really does show what the man in the street would call a memory - the ability to bring to mind abstract knowledge which can guide behavior in a directed way."


Although this brings to mind terrifying visions of scientists hacking your mind as you sleep, the research is still in its infancy. While this may be a significant stepping stone to incepting more detailed memories, thus far spatial memories are the easiest to implant because they are among the simplest and best-understood types of memories.


Hugo Spiers, a spatial cognition researcher at University College London, told The Guardian: "This is exciting because it provides excellent evidence for the importance of place cells in guiding navigation to goals. It is... remarkable that the authors have been able to incept a false memory into the brain during sleep using this method."


Any other kind of memory would require a significantly more involved process; but in the distant future, the researchers hope to use a version of this method to treat victims of trauma and particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, which is closely linked to revisiting traumatic memories.

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