Human Memory Manipulation Technology for PTSD – A Step Too Far?by Carla Clark, PhD | November 9, 2015
National Geographic Channel will shortly air “Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain“. As part of a virtual roundtable, Brain Blogger was selected to screen the episode and address the thought provoking question raised therein:
What if scientists were able to implant or erase memories for someone like those suffering from PTSD, this could be life changing, or do you think this is scientific innovation gone too far?
Living in Greece during the refugee crisis, here is how answering that question unfolded…
A flurry of arms, legs, grubby cheeks, whoops and giggles from three playful refugee children welcomed me as I emerged from the underground at Victoria square in Athens, Greece.
Exceptionally crowded, Victoria square has become one of the many parts of the city where a mere fraction of the thousands of refugees that arrive in Greece every day get stuck in transit through a danger-fraught migration through Europe, fleeing from life shattering circumstances in their home countries.
Scanning for a friend among the predominantly Afghani crowd of inhabitants temporarily occupying the tiny square I met the eyes of a little girl, no older than the spirited and sprightly kids that greeted me on arrival, and my heart sank. It broke.
Her eyes. So lifeless. So traumatized. Revealing little conscious awareness. My mind was literally suspended in the moment. Time seemed to stand still.
A mixture of emotions instantaneously surged inside me. Concern. Despair. Shame. Outrage.
In that very moment, acting on raw emotions, if I could have magically wiped the terrible memories from her mind I would have done it without hesitation. Using slow and methodical evidence-based thinking, would it do any good?
Considering the recent breakthroughs in both implanting, manipulating and erasing memories in animal models, such as the revolutionary fiber-optic memory manipulation tech developed by Steve Remirez at the Nobel Prize winning Tonegawa MIT lab in the picture below, foreseeing a future where human memory manipulation technology exists that could be used to target specific memories is near inevitable.
Yet, manifesting modern technology from the realms of science-fiction is often fraught with previously unexplored ethical dilemmas, no matter how noble the cause. Perhaps bringing memory manipulation tech into existence could do more harm than good to both the individual and society as a whole? Should we leave technologically tinkering with our memories well alone?
Putting the more practical, technological challenges, or the inevitable brainwashing abuse of such technology to one side, I invite you to participate in a thought experiment considering the potential negative consequences of advanced memory manipulation technology science fiction becoming science fact.
If advanced human memory manipulation technology is developed for PTSD, what are the undesirable outcomes of using such technology?
Fragmentation of the Self and Loss of Self-Identity
Let’s take the concept of erasing memories that are associated with a traumatic event. There is one glaring potential problem with this. Erasing memories may result in further fragmentation of the self, altering ones identity and behavior, as is tragically found for neurological disorders and brain injury that involve memory loss.
Slight alterations in personality may be considered acceptable to some, as is generally the case found for personality changes that result from deep brain stimulation used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Even if it does alter one’s personal identity, it makes us able to function. Is that not worth the risk?
However, the rapid, presumably unpredictable and potentially gross rewriting of self-identity that could be produced from memory-erasing technology, as opposed to the generally more gradual change of self that results from personal experience, is unexplored territory.
Stunted Growth and Learning from Trauma
A related line of thinking is that erasing the traumatic memory may rob us of some of the documented positive outcomes of traumatic events and recovery from PTSD. For example, some trauma surviving parents afford their children enhanced psychological protection from PTSD. Other positive outcomes of trauma include survivors developing new values, deeper relationships, an increased appreciation of life and a greater sense of confidence and/or spirituality, that may never have occurred if it were not for their traumatic memories.
Nonetheless, this chain of thought becomes practically defunct if memory manipulation is specifically employed to treat the approximate third of PTSD cases that are currently considered to never fully recover using currently available therapies.
Digging even deeper, some researchers consider that the emotional strength of traumatic memories route them deeper in our subconscious, and so a conscious memory wipe would only be skin deep, leaving the trauma unresolved.
Few Perceivable Problems with Manipulating Memories Emotionally?
If memory manipulation in the emotional domain was use, as apposed to erasing memories, all of these above problems may be avoidable.
Currently, with successful experiments in rodents, there is scientifically valid reasoning behind the potentially priceless therapeutic potential of using tech to alter the emotional component of a traumatic memory, instead of erasing the memory itself.
Having evolved the ability to preserve emotionally serious memories to increase our chances of survival should mean, hypothetically, that an emotion-based memory manipulation technique would lessen the brain’s hold on the traumatic memories and allow the mental space for recovery.
One could argue that tampering with the emotions associated with a memory could leave us vulnerable to falling victim to similar circumstances, without emotional alarm bells ringing as loudly to alert us off danger signs. Ultimately, the marked similarity between using technology to alter the emotional component of traumatic memories, and the mechanisms involved in spontaneous healthy recovery from traumatic events, takes the edge off of this argument.
In those that successfully recover from a traumatic event, memories are recalled and reprocessed multiple times, resulting in the details of the memory becoming less and less accurate over time. Our memories are not set in stone, they are dynamic, updateable and changeable. This is not only true for the details of the event themselves, but is also true for the emotional aspect of the traumatic memories.
With PTSD, emotional recall of the traumatic memory doesn’t lessen in the same manner. Instead, the individuals psyche is pummeled by emotionally reliving the traumatic experience every time the memory resurfaces into conscious awareness. Essentially, memory tech could be used to mimic the therapeutic emotional changes to traumatic memories that occurs au natural.
While there are a lot of ‘ifs’ involved, a little ingenuity and logic may be used to help bypass any foreseeable problems that could arise within the brain as a result of using memory manipulation technology. For future trauma victims like the girl I saw that day on Victoria square, furthering this technology could make the difference between a life of pain and suffering or recovery and growth. Who wouldn’t want that?
In the end it us up to us, the people of now, to begin to compare the potential benefits of this technology for the individual to the potentially negative effects for society as a whole. What happens when we are granted the god-like power to potentially alter our memories when they are so integral to our identity, our consciousness, and the essence of what it means to be human? Only time will tell.
Dekel, S., Mandl, C., & Solomon, Z. (2013). Is the Holocaust Implicated in Posttraumatic Growth in Second-Generation Holocaust Survivors? A Prospective Study Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26 (4), 530-533 DOI: 10.1002/jts.21836
Redondo, R., Kim, J., Arons, A., Ramirez, S., Liu, X., & Tonegawa, S. (2014). Bidirectional switch of the valence associated with a hippocampal contextual memory engram Nature, 513 (7518), 426-430 DOI: 10.1038/nature13725
Tanaka, K., Pevzner, A., Hamidi, A., Nakazawa, Y., Graham, J., & Wiltgen, B. (2014). Cortical Representations Are Reinstated by the Hippocampus during Memory Retrieval Neuron, 84 (2), 347-354 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2014.09.037
Ramirez, S., Liu, X., Lin, P., Suh, J., Pignatelli, M., Redondo, R., Ryan, T., & Tonegawa, S. (2013). Creating a False Memory in the Hippocampus Science, 341 (6144), 387-391 DOI: 10.1126/science.1239073
The series premiere of “Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain” will air on Sunday, November 15, at 9 pm ET on National Geographic Channel.
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