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Op-Ed: World first — Memories being made seen for the first time

By Paul Wallis     Jan 25, 2014 in Science
New York - This news is fascinating, but scary, too. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have imaged the brain of a mouse creating memories using protein synthesis.
This could be a big step to great medicine, or the greatest violation of privacy in history.
Science Daily:
To peer deep into neurons without harming them, Einstein researchers developed a mouse model in which they fluorescently tagged all molecules of messenger RNA (mRNA) that code for beta-actin protein -- an essential structural protein found in large amounts in brain neurons and considered a key player in making memories. mRNA is a family of RNA molecules that copy DNA's genetic information and translate it into the proteins that make life possible.
It worked. The fluorescent tagging did a fantastic job. This was no minor bit of science. It was a systematic, effective analysis, opening up a huge chunk of new information for further research. This research also discovered how neurons are strengthened by stimulus, and how they manage beta-actin proteins by masking and unmasking them. They even mapped the process of assembly and disassembly prior to molecular memory formation.
(You can see a short, but perhaps a major historical, video from Einstein on this page.)
Now the really mind-blowing, if you’ll excuse the expression, bit:
"Ms. Buxbaum (Adina Buxbaum, graduate student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University) made the remarkable observation that mRNA's availability in neurons is a transient phenomenon," said Dr. Singer (Dr.Robert Singer, Ph.D author of two related research papers published on these findings). "She saw that after the mRNA molecules make beta-actin protein for just a few minutes, they suddenly repackage and once again become masked. In other words, the default condition for mRNA in neurons is to be packaged and inaccessible."
These findings suggest that neurons have developed an ingenious strategy for controlling how memory-making proteins do their job. "This observation that neurons selectively activate protein synthesis and then shut it off fits perfectly with how we think memories are made," said Dr. Singer.
Complete neuron cell diagram
Complete neuron cell diagram
The good news is very good
Most people know that memory loss and new memory formation is also a classic issue in many degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. It may well be that there’s an identifiable chemical flaw in how brains make memories with these diseases.
This research is the first real step to work that could unlock the entire chemical process of treatment for these severely debilitating diseases. It could also be critically important in medicine related to brain trauma as a result of injuries, and maybe even destructive drugs that play havoc with brain chemistry like crack and ice. It could be used to manage paediatric disorders, even helping kids with lousy attention spans to remember what they learn.
The bad news is theoretical, but potentially very nasty
I don’t want to in any way detract from or diminish in any way an extraordinary scientific achievement. It’s huge, it deserves any kudos given.
BUT: In a saner world, these questions wouldn’t need to be asked. In this world, they’re mandatory.
If memory therapies become possible as a result of more research:
Can selective memories be created?
Can this memory formation process be abused or manipulated?
Can memories be erased or altered?
If you can’t trust people to even make safe antidepressants, what about memory enhancing drugs?
The history of “mind control drugs” is well known. The fact is that they didn’t work very well, if at all, in the past. LSD, scopolamine, and a host of ridiculous “smart drugs” were based on a nasty habit of exploitation of both people and science.
Psychiatry and psychology are also well documented as being of dubious trustworthiness in terms of chemical ethics. Imagine a memory treatment which actively supports false memories applied to the utterly discredited “regressive memory” scams of the past. Imagine a treatment which supports brainwashing. It’s a bit too easy to do, isn’t it?
The recent history of pharmaceuticals is all too well known. So are the endless lawsuits against manufacturers for abusive practices. A collection of irresponsible, arguably psychopathic, manufacturers is no great basis for optimism regarding memory treatment drugs.
Now imagine a memory treatment capable of embedding false memories in witnesses. Imagine a political system based on artificial memories, not mere low IQs, denial and greed, as it is today. You’d have a world full of political messiahs, based on a few chemicals.
Science fiction has dealt with this in depth and detail, but not in practice, and arguably, not cynically enough by half. Can you turn someone into a serial killer or assassin with a few added or subtracted memories? Can you “create” a criminal who actually believes they’re guilty of crimes they didn’t commit?
This is some of the most fantastic, genuinely useful medical research ever done. It couldn’t possibly be timelier, in terms of the epidemics of dementia and related diseases occurring today.
Let’s hope we don’t regret it tomorrow.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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