Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Science Headline of the Day

Israelis discover how to erase long-term memoryIsrael Today

My first reaction was "uh-oh!" The possible implications are staggering, so I hit the Google button. Would you be surprised to learn that this story has not been carried in the American press, at least according to Google?

The study by Reut Shema, Todd Charlton Sacktor, and Yadin Dudai published in the August 17 edition of Science is very interesting indeed, since it overturns the prevailing theory of how long-term memory is maintained. It has long been conjectured that long-term memory storage involves the permanent strengthening of connections (synapses) among the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain. But this new research suggests that the synaptic arrangement has to be maintained by the presence of an enzyme. If you remove the enzyme, the strengthened connections that form the memory collapse.

Rats were given a drug that made them nauseous when they drank saccharine-sweetened water. Wiser than most humans, they learned to avoid the saccharine. The researchers then injected a drug that interferes with this "memory enzyme" into the area of the brain that processes taste. After treatment, the rats went back on the saccharine, which was taken as an indication that they had forgotten what they had learned.

Though the rats could be retrained to avoid the saccharine water, the memory did not return over time without retraining. Put another way, it's likely that the memory loss is permanent.

The reports from Scientific American and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation end by suggesting ways the research may be beneficial but make no mention of malevolent possibilities. A news summary by the Israel Hasbara Committee ends with the note that—

As with many recent medical discoveries the implications of how such knowledge could be used in the hands of evil as well as good is worthy of further investigation and contemplation.

Before the public can contemplate this research, it would be nice if they were informed of it.

But an online popular science journal World Science got to the point quickly—

In the science-fiction movie Men in Black, a top-secret team uses a “memory eraser” to make people forget that they’ve seen aliens. Memory erasure is a recurrent theme in science fiction, but until recently it has stayed in the realm of fiction only.

The findings can serve to benefit people, such as for treatments to enhance memory or erase traumatic recollections, the researchers added. But some authors have also predicted potential for abuse of such treatments. For instance, one might blot out a memory to keep someone from testifying about a crime. “Only the inherent goodness of our fellow men and women” can prevent abuse, wrote one of the scientists, Todd Sacktor of SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., in an email.

Yivsam Azgad, a spokesman for the Weizmann Institute, wrote in an email that he thinks abuse of the findings can be prevented only through “ethics, and by the laws of each country.” As with all research, he added, it’s [the] scientists’ job to gain new knowledge, and society’s to use it responsibly.

Scant hope for that.


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