Memory in humans is a dynamic thing. The best, most agile brains often have imperfect memories: remembering things incorrectly, forgetting things completely or even creating memories of events that never happened. Science fiction has long dealt with the possibility of implanting memories in human minds. While this practice seems nearly impossible by using only psychology, new research seems to show that it could be achievable using the latest scientific technology.
As recently as last year, scientists used a combination of genome-editing technology and light stimulation of brain cells to convince laboratory mice that they had experienced a certain smell during a certain negative experience. Taking the research one step further, scientists at the French National Center for Scientific Research have successfully implanted artificial memories into the minds of mice. They found that the implanted memories not only lasted over time but affected the animal’s later behavior.
The scientists implanted the false memories by using electrodes on the mice’s brains which stimulated two specific areas: the medial forebrain bundle (MFB) and the brain’s learning and memory center, the hippocampus.
The stimulation of the hippocampus focused even more specifically on cells called “place cells” that become activated when an animal is in a specific location and act as a brain’s built-in GPS system.
Researchers activated the mice’s place cells forcibly while the mice were awake in a particular place. This artificial stimulation led to the generation of a false positive association between a particular area and a pleasurable experience. This caused mice to spend longer in specific locations where their brain had told them that they enjoyed themselves, on a cellular level.
Researchers continued to monitor the mice’s brain activity during sleep, and continued the artificial stimulation related to locations and place cells. And again, when the animals woke, they continued to spend up to five times longer in areas that were associated with artificial place cell activity, compared with animals who had received random stimulation.
All of this research, while highly successful in mice, will most likely not be attempted on humans any time soon, being that it involves quite invasive brain implants and manipulations. However, this innovation in neuroscience has the potential to shed a lot of light on the nature of memory, and the role of sleep in memory consolidation and solidification as well as possibly help fight mental disorders and neurodegenerative diseases in the future.