(image credit: Melissa Grey)
“If you can steal an idea, why can’t you plant one there instead?” -Saito, Inception
Actually, it turns out we can implant memories, at least in mice. In 2013, researchers at MIT were able to successfully implant false memories into a mouse. To do so, they genetically engineered a mouse that produces a light-responsive molecule (channelrhodopsin, which we’ll just refer to as CR) within certain cells of the brain known to be involved in memory formation. They then placed these mice into a harmless chamber, which we’ll call chamber A. As they wandered around the chamber, their brains were creating good memories of the chamber (since it’s harmless) while producing light-responsive CR in the memory storage cells. As a result, the good memories could then be recalled at a later time by activating the CR with blue light.
The next day, they placed the same mice in chamber B, and again let them wander around. After a while though, the researchers then sent shock pulses to the mice’s feet, while simultaneously conjuring up the memories of chamber A by shining blue light onto the CR-producing memory cells. On day three, the mice who experienced chamber B were put back into chamber A, and when they did, they froze up in the corner for fear of shock. Wait a second, didn’t they have good memories of chamber A? Why fear it? By activating the memories of chamber A at the same time that the mice received a shock, these researchers had successfully implanted false memories of being shocked in chamber A. The mice were scared of chamber A because they had memories of being shocked there. But we both know that they never actually got shocked by this chamber, therefore making the memory false.
So is inception possible in humans as well? Well, unless you can convince a human rights regulatory board to allow you to alter the genetic make-up of your test subject’s brain cells, then probably not. So what can we do with the information from this study then? Well humans can very well create false memories of their own. In fact, our memory is really unreliable because the mechanisms behind false memory and genuine memory are very similar. The researchers at MIT wish to use their mouse model to study the different parameters or events that are necessary for the formation of false versus genuine memories.