Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made an astonishing breakthrough: they believe that they now have the ability to erase feelings of fear or anxiety.The researchers discovered which brain circuits attach emotions to memories but, more importantly, they worked out how to reverse this link.
Traumatic experiences can have a profound and negative effect that leaves people emotionally scarred for life, but neuroscientists believe that it may now be possible for them to erase residual feelings of trauma. This could benefit those suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and remove the need for strong medication.
The findings of the study, which was published this week in the journal Nature, suggested that feelings of fear were erased in previously traumatised mice, and researchers think that it may be possible for the same technique to be used in humans.
“In our day to day lives we encounter a variety of events and episodes that give positive or negative impact to our emotions,” said Susuma Tonegawa, Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at the Riken-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics.“If you are mugged late at night in a dark alley you are terrified and have a strong fear memory and never want to go back to that alley.
“On the other hand if you have a great vacation, say on a Caribbean island, you also remember it for your lifetime and repeatedly recall that memory to enjoy the experience.
“So emotions are intimately associated with memory of past events. And yet the emotional value of the memory is malleable. Recalling a memory is not like playing a tape recorder. Rather it is like a creative process.
“The circuits seem to be very similar between human and mice when it comes to memory formations and the emotions of memories. So a similar technology could be available for humans.”
Memories are known to be comprised of many different elements, which are filed away in various areas of the brain. Contextual memories, which record time and location are stored in cells in the hippocampus, while the associated emotions are stored in the amygdala. The brains of the rodent subjects used in the study were monitored to identify which brain cells became active during pleasant experiences, such as mixing with potential mates, and which were activated during negative experiences, such as receiving an electric shock.The scientists discovered that they could reverse the anxious feelings by stimulating neurons associated with the opposite emotion.
“We found that we can dictate the overall emotion and the direction of the memory.” added Prof Tonegawa, “We could switch the mouse’s memory from positive to negative and negative to positive.”
Previous studies have indicated that this process may happen naturally over time as memories become less distinct, but this is the first time that scientists have found which brain circuits are responsible for positive and negative emotions, and deliberately reversed them.
Professor Richard Morris at the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems at the University of Edinburgh said: “We often believe that our memories are accurate, but in fact they are malleable.
“The memory of a romantic first date with a partner may take on a different mood when the relationship falters. That of a favourite family beach in summer may be destroyed after witnessing a swimming tragedy.
“Molecular engineering is shedding light on our understanding of the underlying physiological networks of memory.”
“It’s not something we can do next week, but we are now developing a variety of methods to try to target the stimulation of the human brain cells,” added Prof Tonegawa.
“Instead of going inside the brain you stimulate from the surface of the brain which would be less invasive.
“I want to make it clear that we have no intention to use this technology in order to alter normal healthy people’s mind or cognition. That we should not do. If there is any application in human it would be for pathological conditions.”
This amazing new scientific innovation could revolutionize the lives of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or for those suffering from continued and severe depression due to their inability to move on from devastating and life-changing events. Fear can certainly be a disabling and crippling emotion that can negatively shape our lives if not controlled effectively. In Whitley Strieber’s chilling novel "2012, The War for Souls," fear becomes a stench that allows detection of souls by predatory alien forces. Only those who could learn to control its power were able to evade detection and survive.
This analogy translates slickly into our reality: new-age thinkers believe that negative energies and thinking may attract even more negativity, crowding out joy and positivity. Spiritualists warn that fear and negativity attract negative entities who feed greedily on the darker energies emitted by the tormented soul. Even conventional medicine suggests that shock and grief can have detrimental effects on the mind and body if not dealt with effectively, pre-disposing the afflicted to unconsciously seek more negative experiences.
To be able to erase bad memories seems like a dream come true for those whose quest is enlightenment and the pursuit of joy. Despite the study authors’ assurances to the contrary, one can predict that this scientific breakthrough could almost become a designer accessory in the future, where "joy junkies" will check in to have their brains hot-wired for hedonism.
Indeed, why live with pain when we can press the "Delete" button and reboot our minds? Yet pain is said to be a great teacher, and many negative experiences allow us to learn and grow, and to navigate away from similar events in the future. If we erase all painful memories as soon as they happen, then do we set ourselves up for repeated falls?
Dr Anders Sandberg, neuroscientist and ethicist at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity warned that any similar techniques would have to be used with caution.
“If I am suffering from PTSD after a traffic accident it would probably be a good idea to remove a strong emotional impact of that memory, but it would be a stupid idea to remove my memory of being hit by a car,” he said. “If we had some kind of memory erasure that works like erasing files in a computer it might be more problematic than modifying the emotional association.”
On a personal level, if we erase our painful experiences then how can we learn to have empathy, or to learn by our mistakes? Isn’t this the point of the physical existence?
In 1977, an object was discovered in our solar system with a very unusual orbit, meandering from out near Uranus to well inside the orbit of Saturn. Initially thought to be an asteroid, it was named Chiron, though it turned out to be the largest comet nucleus known to date, about 25 times the size of Halley’s comet. In mythology, Chiron was a Centaur, having the torso of a man with the body and legs of a horse. He was said to have suffered an incurable wound as the result of an arrow mistakenly fired by Hercules during a fight.
Chiron was afflicted by this wound for the rest of his life, but in the course of trying to heal himself, he became a renowned healer and teacher. Some therefore believe that the "incurable wounds" that we suffer in life are karmic, requiring us to come to terms with and learn to live with the pain that they generate. The process of adjusting to the pain is considered to be necessary for spiritual growth, and allows us to develop empathy for and help those similarly afflicted.
Is it right then to manipulate our minds in this way, or is it morally and spiritually wrong to avoid the less palatable parts of the human existence?
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