Thursday, April 16, 2009

Memory Erasing/Enhancing: the possibilities

A recent New York Times article asks: What would your life be like if you could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain? Imagine being made to forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, or even a bad habit. This notion seems like a cheesy Sci-Fi movie; however researchers are on the verge of making memory erasing a reality.

Dr. Todd C. Sacktor and his team of scientists from SUNY Downstate Medical Center have been able to show how a single dose of an experimental drug can, in animals, block the ability of the brain to hold onto specific types of memories.

The positive side to this research includes the fact that the drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems. With an estimated 100 million Alzheimer's and dementia sufferers worldwide by the year 2050, this appears to be a clearly beneficial target treatment.

This possibility of memory editing has enormous possibilities; yet it also raises huge ethical issues. For example, how will erasing specific memories affect humans? Any such drug could be misused to erase or block memories of bad behavior, even of crimes. It may seem beneficial to erase traumatic memories, but the erasure of other troubling memories, and the healthy dread of them, form the foundation of moral conscience.

I know that memories of punishments from parents and other authority figures have had a major impact on my decision making and resultant actions. If I had no recollection of the way I felt during punishments, then I would probably be apt to repeat the same mistakes. If somebody erased those types of memories, then it would be like somebody squashing my internal "Jiminy Cricket".

A substance that improves memory would raise larger social concerns in addition to ethical concerns. For example, when scientists find a drug to strengthen memory, will everyone feel compelled to use it? People already use smart drugs and performance enhancers of all kinds; so a substance that actually improved memory could lead to an arms race.

At this point in time, the ethical and social implications of memory erasing/enhancing are just another future dread. However, we can all find comfort in the fact that such drugs may never even make it to human trials. Also, we can always rely on our government to halt any possibilities of future research. I say this because there may actually be positive aspects to this type of drug, such as Alzheimer's treatment, and we know how the government has reacted to promising studies (pre-Obama days)…case in point: will stem cell treatments ever get off the ground?

No comments: