One Day, Scientists May Be Able To Erase Negative Memories In Your Brain While You Sleep

What if scientists could sneak into your brain while you’re sleeping and erase painful memories — or turn them into happy ones? What sounds like something out of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” could be a reality sooner than you might expect.

Of course, nobody’s saying the technique will be used to help people get over a bad breakup. But it just might change the lives of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In pioneering new research, neuroscientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and ESPCI ParisTech manipulated memories in sleeping mice, using paired electrodes inserted into the brain to turn neutral memories into positive ones.

The new discovery has members of the scientific community buzzing.

“This research demonstrates a remarkable level of mastery over the cognitive machinery that gives rise to memories,” Steve Ramirez, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has conducted landmark research on memory manipulation, told The Huffington Post in an email.

In the experiment, the researchers placed one electrode in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with spatial memory. The other was placed in the brain’s so-called “reward center.”

First, they monitored the brain activity of each mouse as it roamed around an “exploration area.” As the mouse stored memories of different locations in the exploration area, different neurons in the hippocampus lit up, indicating that spatial information was being recorded.

Then, the researchers monitored activity of the hippocampus at night as it consolidated memories of different locations the mouse had visited that day.

They placed an electrode on a neuron that had lit up in one particular corner of the cage earlier that day. When that memory was being processed, the researchers used another electrode to stimulate the brain’s reward center, making the mouse associate that location with some sort of reward, such as food.

How do they know it worked? When the mice woke up, they ran straight to that area of the cage, expecting a reward.

“The learning we induced during sleep was just to change the emotional value of the different locations of the environments,” Dr. Karim Benchenane, a neuroscientist at CNRS and one of the study’s authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. “Indeed, during waking hours, all the locations were neutral. What we made them learn during sleep is that a particular location is now associated to a reward.”

These results tell us something fascinating about about how the brain works: Our memories seem to be stored in a piecemeal fashion. While one area of the brain holds the factual information of the memories, the emotions associated with the memory are held in a different area.

So what about a human brain? In the future, scientists might be able to go into a person’s brain while they’re sleeping and turn off the emotional element of a negative memory, essentially extracting the trauma from a traumatic experience.

“For humans, you would need a way to detect during sleep the periods during which the traumatic experiences are reactivated,” Benchenane explained. “It is likely that it will be soon possible to do so with fMRI.”

But it’s going to be a while before this technique is used on humans, because of the risks associated with sticking electrodes in the human brain.

Still, the potential for future treatment is promising.

“We’re just scratching the tip of the technical iceberg and definitely have our work cut out for us,” Ramirez said. “Nonetheless, the study gives us a fantastic and novel framework under which to work to achieve these kinds of treatment-related goals.”

The findings were published on March 9 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

via One Day, Scientists May Be Able To Erase Negative Memories In Your Brain While You Sleep.

Mother’s Day

There may seem little that’s poignant about the classic riddle, “What’s pink and wrinkly and hangs out your trousers?” But at my age, the answer, “Your mum,” seems filled with pathos.

Of course that wasn’t how I felt the first time I heard it. I laughed so hard I nearly choked on my Spangles. But back then I had only been a user, I could never imagine that I might be co-opted into a maternal support system let alone become a part-time service provider. Now that ending feels more like a punch than a line.

But what do we have to thank mothers, in particular, for? In this era of house-husbands, stay-at-home dads and paid paternity leave it’s getting harder to distinguish what ‘mothering’ actually means;  it would, after all, be nice to think that what we’re celebrating on Mother’s Day is more than the sweat, tears, blood and pain, lots and lots of pain, of pregnancy and childbirth.

What it means to be a ‘mother’ seems to have ebbed over the last century. Sufferage, Rosie the Riveter, Feminism, glass ceiling breakers and working mums have all contributed to widening women’s potential and, conversely, reduced the singular cultural identity of motherhood. Most destructively though, have been the emotionally greedy, work-shy men, like me, who jumped onto the new-fathering bandwagon rather than go out and get a proper job… in one blow they diminished the feminine identity of motherhood… and, curiously, still can’t work an iron.

It’s not that it’s any more difficult to spot your own mum; she’s the one tutting and telling you to scrape your plate before you put it in the dishwasher. It’s just more difficult to define what ‘mothering’ is without pushy men trying to get in on the act like Yozzer Hughes roaring, ‘I can do that, giz a job’

What hasn’t helped, and arguably why you don’t see the punchline to that opening gag coming, is that the maternal dialectic is so often filled with pleas to ignore and forget her existence. “I don’t want to interfere…”, “It’s your life but…”, “Far be it for me to say anything but…” or the classic peroration, “but don’t listen to me. That’s fine.”

Even if every word of advice is guilt edged, the plot of receding in to the background remains a universal maternal trope. Unlike show-off, needy, modern paternalism, Dads trying to impress a big-man can-do identity on their kids, the stated wish to be ignored seems an intrinsic leitmotif of mothering, even if the opposite is true.

The self-effacement endures with Mothering Sunday, which isn’t really her’s. It only became Mothers’ Day, at least in the UK, by accident and a slip of the tongue; like so many young mothers. The old Christian holiday of Laetare Sunday, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, was long known as ‘Mothering Sunday’ as it was the day church goers would observe mass at the major ‘mother’ churches and cathedrals rather than their local churches. Add to that further confusion as the day oscillates between competing ‘women’s’ days: the pre-Christian, Roman festivals of Lady Day, on the 21st of March and Hilaria, (honestly, don’t laugh), dedicated to the mother goddess Cybele. Even today, International Women’s Day is on 8th of March.

When grieving daughter Anna Jarvis invented the Mother’s Day celebration in 1908, in the United States, the pre-existence of ‘Mothering Sunday’ in the UK was evidently too good a pun to ignore. So now, when most countries in the world celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May, the UK, Ireland and Nigeria alone, continue the semantic mix up and send their naff cards and pot plants in March.

But what exactly are we celebrating when, quite possibly, Dads and Mums are able to bring children up similarly? What aspect of female motherhood is unique to the gender?

Perhaps it’s not in how she brings you up that is unique to her sex, but in how she tries to let you go. Fathers, even if they keep it secret, jealous of freedom, bestow it suddenly and grudgingly, a mother, perhaps, does it gradually; that gentle ‘don’t mind me’ tactic of fading away while, of course, staying present.

And then you only really appreciate how hard it is to let your children stand on their own when you’re facing the same ordeal yourself. So I’ll be thanking my Mum on Mother’s Day, as much for how she tried to let me go as how she held me… still, I wonder if I bring a wash round she’ll still hang out my trousers?

First published in

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