Researchers have managed to bring Christopher Nolan’s 2010 mind-bending film Inception to life at least for mice, by successfully implanting false memories in the minds of rodents.
The experiment was conducted by the same Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team that discovered that memories are stored in individual neurons. During the study, researchers implanted a false memory of fear in the brain of a mouse, in a process they called “incepting.”
What lead researcher and neuroscientist Steve Ramirez and his colleagues did was to tag brain cells that were associated with a specific memory and then tweak the memory so as to make the mouse remember something that did not happen.
The scientists used a technique called optogenetics: they used a virus to infect the neurons so as to make them more sensitive the light. The light acts like an activation mechanism for neurons to create a false memory, in a very similar fashion to how real memories are formed.
In the first stage of the experiment last year, researchers placed a mouse in a chamber that delivered electric shocks to their feet, forming a fear memory. The mouse was then placed in another chamber and scientists shone a blue light on the cells that encoded the fear memory. The result was that the mouse froze in fear, as if they were in the first chamber where they received the electric shocks.
This year, scientists did the experiment in reverse. They first placed the mice in an environment they enjoyed. After that, they relocated them to another chamber where they received foot shocks, while their memory of the first chamber was stimulated with light. When returned to the first chamber, the mice froze, because their brain created a false memory and associated the electric shocks with the environment they had initially enjoyed.
MIT researchers’ study shows how unreliable memories can actually be and shines a light on how false memories are created in the human mind. We are often convinced that our false memories of an event are real and that is because false and real memories are formed in the same way, as the experiment demonstrates.
The research also shows that implanting false memories in people can be achieved, at least in theory. Until then, scientists are hoping to use the technology to treat problems such as depression or anxiety, possibly by deleting or reprogramming bad memories. It may sound farfetched now, but in a few years it may become a viable option for treatment. To quote one Inception character called Eames, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”