Scientists say they have discovered a way to implant false memories in mice.
The fascinating development instantly evokes dystopian scifi classics, such as Blade Runner, in which replicants are given false memories to make them believe themselves to be human. But experts predict the breakthrough could have much more near-future applications such as tackling various brain disorders.
The team at the Massachusetts-based RIKEN MT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics managed to make mice wrongly associate a safe environment with an unpleasant experience from a different environment – choosing the animal because of its similar brain structure to humans.
The genetically-engineered mice had their brains implanted with optic fibres that can deliver pulses of light to the brain cells which store memories.
They were then placed in a benign blue box, and the brain cells which ‘recorded’ this experience were identified by the scientists.
The mice were then put in a red box, and the same brain cells were then activated by pulses of light, making the mice recall the memory of the blue box.
While this memory was evoked scientists then applied mild electrical shocks to the bottom of the red box.
Later, when the mice went back to the blue box, they showed signs of fear, demonstrating that they had formed a false memory for the blue box, despite not receiving the shock there.
The scientists say this demonstrates how unreliable memory is, likening the combinations of brain cells which hold memories to the alphabet, which has just 26 letters, but whose combinations make unlimited words and sentences.
One of the study’s authors, Dr Xu Liu, told the BBC: ""There are so many brain cells and for each individual memory, different combinations of small populations of cells are activated.
"Our memory changes every single time it’s being ‘recorded’. That’s why we can incorporate new information into old memories and this is how a false memory can form without us realising it."
It’s the sort of announcement that makes science fiction look worryingly (or happily) close to becoming science fact: how wild a postulation does the memory removal service in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind look now?
Indeed, scientists are speculating the breakthrough could one day be used to help them work out how to remove or alleviate the fearful associations people with post-traumatic stress disorder suffer.
They say it could even help us tackle schizophrenia by developing understanding of the structures of thought and the cells involved.
It’s a very exciting future, and one that suddenly doesn’t seem too far away.