Implanting false memories is one of the favorite themes for science fiction books and movies (such as Total Recall) and is certainly one of the gloomiest scenarios.

Thriller movies do not ignore this concept either, keeping audiences breathless, but the reader (or viewer) feels detached from the adventure because they know that it’s not something that can happen. It’s too sci-fi.

But it might be not that long before implanting false memories becomes a reality. Researchers claim to have managed to insert “hybrid memories” to some lab mice, forcing them to remember things while accumulating new ones by reactivation of specific neurons. It’s a step that may pave the way for implanting false memories.

Forming and using memories involves incredibly complex neurological processes some of which are still not fully understood. But if it is possible to track which neurons are involved in creating a specific memory and regulating their activities, retrieval of memories could be a very neat and flawless run.

Dr. Aleena Garner and her colleagues at the University of San Diego managed to achieve the same level of control neurons and memory.

Memory hackers

San Diego University’s experiment is based on highly advanced techniques of genetic and cell manipulation.

Aleena Garner and her research team managed to genetically alter mice so that some neurons to produce a specific receptor, the so-called hM3Dq, induced by a specific activity method, i.e. while the information necessary to produce hM3Dq is found in neurons of mice, only the sufficiently active cells will express the protein.

Thus, the researchers managed to mark specific models of neural networks that become active when mice were exposed to a specific environment: a certain color or smell. But hM3Dq receiver does not only mark the neurons, but it can also be used to activate them. Thus, only certain neurons can be activated in a specific environment.

Mice were exposed to small electric shocks in order to make them fear a specific test chamber with a specific color and smell. After the “terror room” was moved to another, mice were left there for 24 hours and then brought again into the first chamber when they froze in fear at the entrance.

By activating the HM3Dq receptor, something sensational happened with Garner’s mice: they seemed to behave as if nothing bad had happened to them. By neural manipulation and using the receiver, they “forgot” what had happened and associated the “terror room” with the restroom.

Implanting false memories?

After a series of experiments, the researchers concluded that mice were implanted with a false memory, which blocked access to the traumatic experience. It is certain that the insertion of false memories depends on interaction with pre-scheduled neural activity.

The formation of new memories is linked to “pre-existing notions”, said Garner, a record about a present event is made in the context of past experiences, when they are imagined. If the memory of an event is based on previous experience, how objective can recently formed memories be?

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