Men in Black is close to becoming a reality. Sort of.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have developed a method to cause memory loss with intense flashes of light, à la Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the sci-fi action trilogy. So far, the tests have only been attempted in mice, but the results are already promising.
How it works: The researchers, working for the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, needed to use the relationship between the brain's cerebral cortex and hippocampus, the interaction between which results in specific memories. So, the research team decided to manipulate these parts to determine how far they could take their light-erases-memories hypothesis.
The team bred a group of mice with a protein that shuts these cells down in response to bright light. These mice were then put in a cage that delivered an electric shock.
Normally, mice, when returned to the shock cage, showed obvious signs of fear, remembering the electric effects of the cage. But once the mice who were given a flash of light, they inquisitively explored the cage when they were put back in for the second time. They didn't remember the shock at all. The flash of light had erased the bad memories.
What it means: Rather than creating a frightening method to control or memories (or introducing a new form of forget-me-now), the researchers were simply using the flash of light to test the connection between the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus.
"The cortex can't do it alone, it needs input from the hippocampus," researcher Brian Wiltgen told UC Davis. "This has been a fundamental assumption in our field for a long time and [fellow researcher Kazumasa Tanaka]'s data provides the first direct evidence that it is true."
It will still be some time before these methods can be used to erase human memories. The mice had to be bred with a specific protein that shut brain cells off in response to light, which means human would have to be "bred" in a comparable method to be similarly effected.
Nevertheless, the promising possibilities of manipulating our brains to erase bad memories is both exciting and somewhat disturbing (any such technology in the wrong hands is always a bit scary). But for military veterans with PTSD or survivors of intense trauma, there may be very welcome applications for this sci-fi technology.