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Scientists Able To Erase, Restore Memories In Rats

Using a technique that allows lab rats\' brains to be controlled using light, researchers confirmed a longstanding theory of how memories form.
Posted at 8:58 PM, Jun 02, 2014

If you've been traumatized by a recent Game of Thrones episode, you might have fantasized about unseeing a few things. If so, a new study from University of California, San Diego could be your glimmer of hope.

​​Researchers say they were able to erase bad memories in lab rats by shining a light on certain areas of the brain. Even more amazing, they could bring those memories back if they wanted. (Via Flickr / Jason Snyder, Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier)

The study's lead author says, "​We can form a memory, erase that memory and we can reactivate it, at will, by applying a stimulus that selectively strengthens or weakens synaptic connections."

The poor rats were trained to associate a certain signal with an electric shock. When the signal came, they acted afraid, like they knew the shock was coming — unless the scientists had erased the memory of the shock first.

Sound like science fiction? There have been quite a few studies like this lately. Last year, a team was able to implant false memories into mice. That's because of a new technique that allows scientists to control the brains of lab rodents. (Via BBC, CNN)

By taking genes that convert light into electricity from things like algae and jellyfish, and then putting those genes into the neurons of mice and rats, scientists have been able to turn parts of the brain on and off just by shining the right light on them. (Via Wikimedia Commons / M J Richardson, Sierra Blakely, YouTube / jaanjuhan)

It's opened up a whole new field called optogenetics. "If we can turn on or off a set of cells ... we can figure out how do they contribute to a behavior." (Via Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

The technique has allowed scientists to test all sorts of theories about how the brain works. In this case, they confirmed a longstanding theory for how memories are formed.

Nature called it "the most direct demonstration yet that the strengthening and weakening of connections between neurons is the basis for memory." Basically, when the connections were weakened, the rats forgot. When they were strengthened, the rats remembered. 

Sounds kind of familiar. "Here at Lacuna we have perfected a safe, effective technique for the focused erasure of troubling memories." (Via Focus Features / "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind")