Can Brains Erase Memories?
New research indicates that fruit flies appear to have a brain mechanism that is "an active system to erase memory, completely independent from the mechanisms to form memories." This according to Yi Zhong, a neurogeneticist at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, speaking to LiveScience.
In the first set of experiments, the researchers left the flies alone after their training session was over, later testing them at specific points in time as their memory weakened. In a second experiment, the researchers disrupted the odor-shock memories by exposing flies to a new pair of odors. Finally, they reversed the flies' lesson, delivering the foot shock in conjunction with the opposite odor.
In all cases, the flies forgot what they learned previously, which the researchers suspect was due to a small protein known as Rac that switched on with the passage of time. This molecule switched on faster when the insects either got distracted by new experiences or confused by conflicting information.
When Rac was blocked, flies held on to newly acquired memories for longer than they otherwise would have, extending their life from a few hours to more than a day. When the researchers artificially increased Rac in fly neurons, new memories were erased more rapidly.
Science fiction fans remember more about forgetting than scientists have discovered so far. In his 1966 story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale Philip K. Dick writes about erased memories. The story was the basis for the film Total Recall.
Not long thereafter, Mr. Spock demonstrated that Vulcans had mastered the art of forgetting in a classic Star Trek episode Requiem for Methuselah.
("Forget" stated forcefully during Vulcan mind-meld)
In the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey play lovers who have a falling out. Winslet's character goes to a company called Lacuna, Inc. to have her memories of the relationship removed.
(Jim Carrey gets spotless)
Zhong's research was published last week in Cell; his longterm goal is to help people with problems like post-traumatic stress disorder.
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