Is the future for neuroscience in engineering memories?

Personal response to the ABC Science Show – “Where memory resides”

Library of the mind

I once heard that the memory is a library of the mind but what if there was a way to build the library without any books? You could recall the warmth of the Grecian sun without having ever set foot in the country or maybe you want to be fluent in another language without the bother of learning any material.

Research currently being conducted by Dr David Glanzman the Professor of Integrative Biology, Physiology and Neurobiology at the University of California in L.A. is exploring where our memories are stored and what they might be made of. On the 30th January 2016 in an interview with Robyn Williams on the ABC Science Show Dr Glanzman shared some surprising discoveries from his research.

They (might) last forever

Dr Glanzman and his team have been studying the changes in the nervous system of Aplysia californica, a marine snail that lives in tide pools off the coast of southern California. In their experiments, the snails are ‘sensitised’ with electrical shocks to their tail which over time enhances their reflexes lasting a week or more. This enhancement and behavioural change is due to a strengthening of the synaptic connections between sensory neurons and motor neurons.

These same neurons are then taken out and put in a cell culture to reconnect as they were in the animal. The team adds a neurotransmitter called ‘serotonin’ to mimic the long-term sensitisation experienced when the animal had received the electrical shocks and by adding fluorescent dye to the culture they are able to see the growth of new synaptic connections between the neurons.

Dr Glanzman has spent over thirty years studying synaptic connections to understand memory and he, along with many neuroscientists have believed the synapse to be where memories are formed and subsequently stored. It was understood that when these synaptic connections were damaged or removed that the memory would also be lost. With his experiments, Dr Glanzman and his team endeavored​ to ask not whether the memories were lost but whether they were lost permanently.

Surprisingly, the research seemed to suggest that actually, they were not completely lost. When the synapses were removed and subsequently reformed through new growth, the memory was also reinstated which suggests that the memory doesn’t reside in the synapse but may, in fact, reside within the nucleus.

Dr Glanzman hypothesises that memories are maintained by epigenetic changes preserved within the nucleus as ‘learnt’ behaviours but concludes that although there is an increasing amount of evidence to this end, that more research is required to understand such changes.

Engineering a memory

The idea of ‘engineering a memory’ such as learning a new language by inserting specific proteins was not dismissed by Dr Glanzman but the magnitude of achieving such a feat was made clear when it was explained how little is currently understood about potential epigenetic changes involved in specific kinds of memory. The discussion clearly inspires him though as he later presents the idea that maybe childhood memories may just be waiting to be ‘unlocked’.

In this light, the possibility of such memories being ‘unlocked’ seems very whimsical indeed and though I too was inspired by the thought I fell swiftly back to earth realising a little more of its full potential.

I would much prefer to digest my scientific textbooks in pill form and can happily imagine the positive role this could play toward addictive tendencies or the reactivation of motor neurons for those suffering from accident or injury.

Without indulging the potentially negative role such a discovery could play into the hands of the worlds evil, let’s​ just consider the vast impact on industry. Alcoholism in the US costs the country around $200 billion each year and affects more than 17 million people.

Lesser known would be the jobs it provides in healthcare or the economic boost that comes from alcohol sales but would the ability to manufacture your own memories create equal amounts of opportunity and economic value or would we find ourselves facing a different kind of turbulence?

My Nana is 94 and experiences an increase in memory loss due to the onset of old-age dementia. There is no limit to the ends I would reach for the possibility that a pill might remind her of the memories we shared and reactivate her once sharp and active mind.

I’m not sure the recent years she has spent being cared for in a facility paint such a warm picture though so maybe some memories are meant to be lost.