Everyone has some memories they’d rather forget. Could it be possible to edit our memories? While it sounds like something out of science fiction, a team of researchers at Stony Brook University are getting closer to making it a reality.
In a new study published in the journal Neuron, Dr. Lorna Role, co-director of the Stony Brook Neurosciences Institute and a professor and chair at its department of neurobiology and behavior, and her colleagues explained how they successfully tweaked the strength of a person’s memories by manipulating a memory-signaling neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine.
While the mechanisms responsible for controlling memory in the brain are poorly understood, a majority of experts believe that the amygdala is the region that plays the main role in controlling emotional memories. Cholinergic neurons located at the base of the brain deliver acetylcholine to the amygdala, and these same neurons appear to change early on in cognitive decline.
Previous studies have found that cholinergic input to the amygdala seems to enhance the strength of emotional memories, and by altering their function, the study authors believe that they may be able to enhance the good memories of patients suffering from dementia, or remove the traumatic ones that cause people l to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Breakthrough could lead to new, drug-free ways to treat PTSD
As Dr. Role explained last week in a statement, “Memories of emotionally charged experiences are particularly strong, whether positive or negative experiences, and the goal of our research is to determine the mechanisms underlying the strengthening of memory.”
In order to test memory mechanisms, she and her colleagues used a fear-based model in mice. They used a research method known as opto-genetics, which they explained uses light to control cells in living tissue as a way to stimulate specific cholinergic neuron populations during their experiments.
They found that by increasing acetylcholine release in the amygdala during the formation of a traumatic memory, that memory became much stronger and lasted more than twice as long as it normally would. Similarly, decreased acetylcholine signaling in the amygdala during a typically fear-inducing experience would actually erase the recollection of that traumatic event.
“This second finding was particularly surprising, as we essentially created fearless mice by manipulating acetylcholine circuits in the brain,” Dr. Role explained. “The findings provide the basis for research examining novel approaches to reverse post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“The long-term goal of our research is that we would like to find ways – potentially independent of drug administration – to enhance or diminish the strength of specific memories, the good ones, and diminish the bad ones,” she added. Her team plans to continue researching acetylcholine in the hopes that it could help them find a drug-free way to enhance or manipulate memory.
Image credit: Stony Brook University