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Over the years, science fiction writers like Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells have continued to remain relevant as more and more of the wacky gizmos and morally complicated societal issues they predicted have inched closer to reality. Today, another one of those forecasts into future technology got a whole lot less ridiculous after scientists announced they successfully implanted fake memories into mice. It’ll still be decades or more likely generations before the plots of Total Recall or Inception become a reality, but at some point in the future, it now seems likely we could dig into the backs of our brains and remember sleeping with a three-boobed alien or breaking into someone’s else's skull to push him toward a business decision.
Recently, researchers at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics in Cambridge, Massachusetts used a benign virus to place a gene inside each mouse’s hippocampus that would create a protein related to memory when exposed to light. Afterwards, they stuck each mouse into an extremely calm environment dubbed Box A and let it explore for ten minutes. The next day, they inserted a thin fiber optic cable into the hippocampus and set the subjects loose in a second environment dubbed Box B that was chaotic and produced mild shocks. At the same time, they flashed light onto the gene, causing it to produce a protein to simulate a memory. The following day when they were put back into Box A, all of the mice seemed to falsely remember being shocked in Box A. They behaved erratically and nervously, but when they were placed into new environments, they reacted normally.
According to Discovery, one of the clearest ways this research could benefit society down the road is for those who have PTSD or any kind of phobias. Happy memories could be simulated in the parts of the brain related to the PTSD, though a technique less invasive than a fiber optic cable would need to be discovered. As with any scientific research, however, all of it has to come one step at a time. Once the specifics of this research have been released to other scientists, additional groups will then be able to test new theorems and hypotheses to basically stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Ian Malcolm might rail against that idea in Jurassic Park, but that’s basically how the scientific community has always and will always move forward.
If nothing else, this story is great evidence of why asking questions is a wonderful thing. Dick didn’t have the power to actually engineer memories when he wrote We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, but it’s because people like him planted the idea that those capable thought to push toward it. From why we cry to what forests were like 50,000 years ago to what life would be like on Earth without the sun, our curiosity about the world around us is boundless and the amount of knowledge we collectively have should continue to increase every waking moment.
We’ll keep you updated on this research when other scientists push it in exciting new directions.