Home' Technology Review : July August 2014 Contents 33
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
BB: We don’t know the route to
JL: I don’t know the route.
Memory is, first of
all, not in one spot—it’s
distributed across prob-
ably multiple brain areas,
many millions of synapses
in those brain areas. So I
don’t know how you recon-
figure it, fix it. I don’t know
how you regenerate the
right patterns of connectiv-
ity. I don’t think you could
restore lost memories. But what you
might conceivably do is restore some
ability to store new memories.
BB: Messing with memory is a huge deal. It
goes to the core of who we are. Treat-
ing PTSD would be wonderful, but isn’t
it also possible to make people artificial
JL: Or fearless monsters. There’s always
going to be ethical implications. But
we’ ll just have to sort that out.
When we first published this work
[on reconsolidation], someone wrote
a commentary in the New York Times
saying, “Let’s say you were a Holocaust
survivor. You lived 50 years with these
awful memories, and all of a sudden
you’re erasing memories of the Holo-
caust. What would that do to your per-
sonality? It’s who you are now.” [After
further research], the conclusion that
we came up with is that a patient and
therapist would have to slowly chip
away at a memory to a level they were
comfortable with. [And] the research
so far suggests it reduces the zing,
takes the emotional valence out of
the situation, rather than erases the
The other side of that is you can
also intensify memories. So we did
studies in rats where we give them pro-
pranolol, and that weakens the mem-
ory. But if you give them isoproterenol
[which has the opposite effect on the
brain’s neurostimulators], the memory
is now stronger. If you have some way
to strengthen memory after retrieval,
it could be stronger and better.
BB: What’s a situation in which people
would want to do that?
JL: In general, people who have sluggish
memories, they’re not forming memo-
ries very well. Were they to be on a low
dose of isoproterenol, they might get a
little extra boost.
The other idea is that we might be
able to give people positive experiences
and a shot of isoproterenol, and store
those instead of negative experiences.
BB: You could build up more positive memo-
ries in them?
JL: Right, right.
BB: I imagine that could be useful in helping
people struggling with depression.
JL: And as far as I know it’s never been
done. It’s doable.
BB: So why hasn’t it been done?
JL: Well, you know, I had the idea a while
ago, and then I kind of forgot about
it. And now the memory of it—maybe
I’ll think about doing something. [He
“You can’t remember
something, you kind of
know it’s there, and then
a couple of hours later
it pops up. There is stuff
in our brain that we can’t
easily retrieve. I think
that’s where there’s
hope. You can do things
that would facilitate the
have retrieval problems, right? You
can’t remember something, you kind
of know it’s there, and then a couple of
hours later it pops up. There is stuff in
our brain that we can’t easily retrieve.
I think that’s where there’s hope. You
can do things that would facilitate the
BB: What might that be?
JL: The simplest idea would be that it’s a
problem of low arousal in the brain.
We know that emotionally arousing
situations are more likely to be remem-
bered than mundane ones. A big part
of the reason for this is that in signifi-
cant situations chemicals called neu-
romodulators are released, and they
enhance the memory storage process.
The brain is more alert and attentive.
All the spokes are working and all the
gears are oiled.
BB: So could we develop memory vitamins
that offer that same boost?
JL: [The effects of the neuromodulators]
can be mimicked with drugs that do the
same thing. Or if you want to remem-
ber something, put the information in
a significant context. In other words,
make it meaningful by thinking of it in
a way that adds some positive or nega-
tive charge, or by doing something that
increases your level of arousal—exer-
cise, for example.
BB: Would a memory prosthetic be pos-
sible—something put into the brain to
restore lost memories in someone with
dementia or a brain injury?
JL: DARPA [the U.S. military’s R&D
agency] seems to be going full steam
ahead on these kinds of technologies.
What they plan to do is put chips in
[the brain]. It would be like a pros-
thesis—instead of moving your arm,
you’re fixing memory. I have no idea
how they would achieve that.
6/2/14 4:06 PM
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