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April 6, 2012 at 11:45 AMComments: 9 Faves: 2

PKMzeta - A Memory Wipe Pill Has Been Created!

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Id and Ego Blog Series

An incredible break through discovery has been made. By temporarily preventing protein synthesis in the brain, doctors can erase a memory - any single memory – without surgery, without months of counseling or cognitive training. We need only take a pill.

The seed of this pill was sewn 20 years ago when a budding new neuroscientist, Karim Nader realized that while process for creating memories had been identified about 20 years before, the process of retrieving a memory hadn’t been.  In order to discover it for himself, he said he figured he needed to start with the simplest question possible. He knew creating a memory required the creation of new proteins, so the question became would the retrieval of that memory require new proteins as well? He guessed it would, but his boss, Joseph LeDoux, himself a well-known neuroscientist - quite literally - bet against his hypothesis!

Said LeDoux to reporters “I told Karim he was wasting his time… I didn’t think the experiment would work.” He cut him a deal – he told him that if he was actually right, he’d buy him a bottle of tequila, if he was wrong, he’d be treating everyone to a drink. “I honestly assumed I’d be spending a bunch of money on alcohol… Everyone else knew a lot more about the neuroscience of memory. And they all told me it would never work.” admitted Nader.

But Nader got his bottle after all.

The PKMzeta Experiment

In his experiment involving a dozen rats, trained to fear a certain distinctive sound over the course of a month, freezing with fear every time they heard it, he played the sound once more and immediately injected the brains with a chemical that prevented protein from being created. When he played the sound again the rats had no reaction at all. Even more importantly though? The effect continued long after the injection had left their system.

“I couldn’t believe what happened, the fear memory was gone. The rats had forgotten everything.”  said Nader.

In his experiment, not only did Nader discover the secret to targeted pharmaceutical memory loss, he found the answer to how memories are remembered. Memories didn’t have some specific spot they were resting in our brains, preserved in pristine condition, a neuro-connection away whenever we may need it. Memories actually had to be recreated. Le Doux explained that contrary to previous beliefs “The brain isn’t interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past. Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future."

Societal Implications of PKMzeta - The Memory Wipe Pill

Obviously this has some pretty big implications for people suffering from PTSD or for people who have experienced a traumatic event, yet there are other, less obvious conditions which may benefit from the memory wiping pill as well. OCD, drug addiction and even chronic pain are afflictions caused in large part, because of memory. In the case of OCD, it’s a fear or anxiety that's being remembered, with drug addiction it’s the high, and with chronic pain it’s the memory of the trauma that originally inflicted it. The pill could potentially be the answer to all these problems! And yet… it’s not difficult to imagine the consequences the power might bring.

With memories a matter of choice, I wonder - how could this change us?  What would a world of people without unpleasant memories be like? Would we be happier, more kind and confident people without any recollection of rejection, betrayal or loss?  Would we be weaker, more shallow and selfish people without the memory of our struggles, our failures, the hurt we’ve inflicted or the sympathy gained by having been hurt ourselves? Believe me - I’ve been through more than my fair share of difficult life experiences. But would I dose them away if I could? I'm really not sure. I wonder - what sort of me would that leave behind?

And then, beyond the debate on whether this would be better or worse for the person who elects this treatment, there’s the possibility that the pill may fall into the wrong hands. That one person may erase the memories of another against their will. Frightening thought.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

This pill honestly seems more believable in a science-fiction movie than in the pharmacy at my local grocery store. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind immediately comes to mind which, for those of you that haven’t seen it (shame!), revolves around the idea that there is a machine which can completely erase the memory of a person.

It follows two natural candidates for such a machine - a couple who have recently broken up. The girlfriend (Kate Winslet) decides to erase all memories of the boyfriend (Jim Carrey). The boyfriend finds out, decides, “Heck! Erase me?! I’ll erase her!” and signs up for the procedure himself. As you might imagine, there are complications along the way. In the process of reliving all they shared, he decides he doesn’t actually want to go through with it after all. He’d rather feel the pain of the loss than lose the memories of happier times. His mind fights the machine inside the dream-like state it’s induced, running, hiding, trying as best he can to find a loop-hole. Ultimately though, it's useless. The movie ends - and actually begins – with the couple post-memory wiping, having re-met and reformed an attraction, and having just discovered their  un-remembered history. They debate; knowing that their relationship had ended badly before, if did begin anew, wouldn’t it just fall apart all over again? Regardless, they decide they’ll give it a chance - potential happiness is a bigger draw than potential hurt is a deterrent. End credits. Cue music. (Trust me. It’s a lot better and more interesting than this very abbreviated synopsis. Thought-provoking, widely-relatable, and the cinematography-wow. Definitely worth the hour and half of your time!)

Of course, the pill isn’t exactly like total mind-wipe of a person portrayed in the film. It’s extremely precise, eliminating just a single memory at a time. Still, it conjures some poignant moral and philosophical questions. Is the ability to wipe a memory really for the greater good? As Jonah Lehrer who wrote about the pill extensively for Wired Magazine points out, “PKMzeta inhibitors can zap rodent memories, but we can’t ask the rats how they feel afterward. Maybe they feel terrible. Maybe they miss their fear. Maybe they miss their morphine. Or maybe all they know is that they miss something. They just can’t remember what.”

What do YOU think about the memory wipe pill?

Are there memories you would erase?

Do you feel the potentials benefits of the pill outweigh its potential for abuse?


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  • LOVE this blog! Eternal Sunshine is probably my second-favorite movie of all time; I've seen it more times than I can count. And the ending always makes me cry...

    I imagine that this is the sort of thing that would have to be very heavily regulated, and only used as part of some therapy for PTSD or OCD or something similar. But you're right, it definitely opens up a whole world of questions...and that last quote is just profoundly sad. Fascinating stuff!

  • OK. This is insane. Are we actually talking about targeting A memory? I'm not sure how this could help with PTSD unless people had the pills as standard issue and then took them whenever anything bad happened.

    I see a serious dark path for this to follow (probably already is). Assassins and torturers who cannot be tried or testify because they actually have NO memory? Financial traders wiping out people's hard-saved fortunes without culpability? How about a massive military operation and we just dope up the population so nobody remembers what happened?

  • Ahh leave it up to sprouty to bring the doom on this blog. I like the idea of being able to pick and choose which memories, but it does feel like it could turn into a scary movie where people were suddenly start forgetting major events in life and having a large population of amnesiacs. And the one who was against the product becomes a loner because no one remembers him. I would see that movie! But in real life, I'm the one not taking the pills. I want my memories, good and bad. Where does wisdom come from but our own experiences?

  • I mean, it's all REALLY sticky territory.

    While personally I agree with Rex, I feel that for the most part, the really difficult and painful things I've experienced have made me more resilient and overall, a better person, I can see some specific cases where I'd be entirely in support of this drugs use. While in an ideal world, every negative experience would be overcome and lead to a person being stronger, I've seen first hand that that isn't always how it happens.

    But, like Laura said, the drug would have to be heavily regulated and I hadn't even thought of the abuse scenarios you mentioned, Sprouty!

    And Rex - I agree, I would watch that movie! :)

  • I'm with sprouty, this is the epitome of the wrong direction. This drug could potentially eliminate true human age, and I don't mean that annual celebration in which we all pretend the extra year has brought true enlightenment. True age doesn't come from the passing of time, it comes from what is done in that time, how you have chosen to spend your time as part of the universe. To erase your past, even a small part of it, is to remove a part of who you are, part of the infrastructure that holds you up currently.

    I have my doubts as to whether something like this will work on humans, but if it does, we will have done our species an incredible disservice. Memories are very yin and yang, you can't recognize the good without the bad. There is no doubt that terrible atrocities exist in peoples minds, but there is also very little doubt that these atrocities have sculpted some of the greatest human beings ever to walk this Earth. It's time we stop looking for avenues to run away from our pain and start embracing it.

  • Absolutely LOVE this movie as well. It's one of those you can watch over and over again and catch something new each time.

    Also, I just cannot believe there are now pills that are actually capable of something like this. I am someone who also believes what Rex and Erin were saying...about how experiences can shape your wisdom. Personally, I'd never want to delete my memories either because you learn from your experiences and if you deleted one wouldn't you just do the same thing over at a later time?

    I mean just look at what happened in the movie...they delete their memories of each other....and they find each other a second time and create the memory all over again (although in a different scenario)

    P.S. Awesome blog, Erin! :)

  • Dayton: *puts hand on burner* AHHHHH!!!! PAIN!!! I THINK THIS IS WHAT PAIN FEELS LIKE!!
    Rex: Wow that was stupid
    Dayton: I know right??! *takes pill*
    Rex: *sigh*
    Dayton: *puts hand on burner again* AHHHHHHHHH!!!! WHY!???? WHYYY HAND!???
    Rex: *facepalm and walks away*

    ^see why this pill is bad!?!?!?!??! It's not rocket surgery ppl!

  • Nice DHSAB reference Dayton, love it.

  • Hhahahahahaha I can totally picture Dayton's comment!

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