Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘Without Forgetting It Is Quite Impossible to Live at All’

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Here come the forget-me-nows.

By coupling these amnesia cocktails to the memory reconsolidation process, it’s possible to get even more specific. Nader, LeDoux, and a neuroscientist named Jacek Debiec taught rats elaborate sequences of association, so that a series of sounds predicted the arrival of a painful shock to the foot. Nader calls this a “chain of memories”—the sounds lead to fear, and the animals freeze up. “We wanted to know if making you remember that painful event would also lead to the disruption of related memories,” Nader says. “Or could we alter just that one association?” The answer was clear. By injecting a protein synthesis inhibitor before the rats were exposed to only one of the sounds—and therefore before they underwent memory reconsolidation—the rats could be “trained” to forget the fear associated with that particular tone. “Only the first link was gone,” Nader says. The other associations remained perfectly intact. This is a profound result. While scientists have long wondered how to target specific memories in the brain, it turns out to be remarkably easy: All you have to do is ask people to remember them.

This isn’t Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style mindwiping. In some ways it’s potentially even more effective and more precise. Because of the compartmentalization of memory in the brain—the storage of different aspects of a memory in different areas—the careful application of PKMzeta synthesis inhibitors and other chemicals that interfere with reconsolidation should allow scientists to selectively delete aspects of a memory. Right now, researchers have to inject their obliviating potions directly into the rodent brain. Future treatments, however, will involve targeted inhibitors, like an advanced version of ZIP, that become active only in particular parts of the cortex and only at the precise time a memory is being recalled. The end result will be a menu of pills capable of erasing different kinds of memories—the scent of a former lover or the awful heartbreak of a failed relationship. These thoughts and feelings can be made to vanish, even as the rest of the memory remains perfectly intact. “Reconsolidation research has shown that we can get very specific about which associations we go after,” LeDoux says. “And that’s a very good thing. Nobody actually wants a totally spotless mind.”

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