Are your mice dreaming of Mars and a beautiful furry companion? If so, you may not have to go to the trouble of taking them to Rekall to sort their troubled minds out.
Scientists at the Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in Paris, France, have successfully implanted memories in mice in what is the first example of memory manipulation during sleep.
A study published yesterday explains how the rodents’ memories were altered with artificial positive feelings which were associated with a particular place. When the mice awoke, they promptly went in search of the location that had been implanted in their brains.
Karim Benchenane and his colleagues targeted “place cells” – neurons that activate either when the mice were in a certain location or thinking about it – and then used electrodes to monitor those cells as the creatures roamed around an enclosed area.
They discovered that each mouse had place cells that only fired in specific locations and, when the mice were asleep, a computerised study of their brains showed the same cells activating again as the rodents replayed the events of the day in their minds.
Armed with this information, the scientists were then able to use an electrode to stimulate specific place cells, thereby linking thoughts of reward with specific locations.
When the mice awoke they would head straight to the location where they thought they would find the reward, thus indicating that a new memory had been formed.
Of mice and men
Given how humans also replay the day’s events in their minds when they are sleeping – albeit in a way that we often don’t understand – it seems feasible that the same technique could be used with humans.
And there are several reasons why it could be useful too.
Think about victims of extremely violent or otherwise distressing events. How useful would it be if, every time they recalled a particular event, their brain could be programmed to associate positive or neutral thoughts with it rather than negative ones?
Similarly, there could be uses in dealing with mental illnesses, such as depression. And those of you who have severe phobias could, one day, dream your way past those fears too.
But is ‘hacking’ the human brain in such a way even a possibility?
According to Benchenane, attaching positive thought to bad experiences isn’t so far fetched:
If you can identify where in the brain a person is reactivating a phobia-associated experience, you might be able to create a positive association.
Whether medical boards and legislators will be so keen on memory manipulation is another matter entirely though and so I would imagine that any human trials will be a long way off.
So, for now at least, you can put your totem down and get back to watching Leonardo DiCaprio on the tv.
Or you can wake up….