Researchers Successfully Implant Mice With False Memories

By on July 26, 2013

Call it cool or just plain creepy: Memory researchers from U.S. and Japan have, for the first time, implanted false memories into a lab animal.

The researchers made mice believe that they had once received electrical shocks in their feet while sitting in a certain little chamber, even though that had never happened. Thereafter, whenever the researchers put the mice in that chamber, the mice would freeze up in a typical mouse response to fear.

It’s already clear that people are able to form false memories. Think about that family tale about your getting sick at Disneyland—the one that’s been told so often, you’ve felt yourself “remember” the event more and more over the years, even though you were way too young to truly recall it. Or, more seriously, think about how often eyewitness testimony fails, convicting people who are later exonerated through DNA testing.

“So this false memory is a serious social problem,” Susumu Tonegawa, a biologist at MIT and the lead researcher in the new mouse study, tells Popular Science. (You may recognize Tonegawa’s name because he won a Nobel Prize in 1987 for research into the immune system.) “False memory in a human,” Tonegawa clarifies.

So what’s the good of putting false memories in mice? Having a technique to do this could help other scientists study false memories more in depth, using mice, Tonegawa says. In the future, such studies could lead to a better understanding of how false memories form in people. Meanwhile, Tonegawa and his colleagues have already used their mice to discover one thing. On the molecular level, false memories in mice look a lot like real ones.

“They are really similar in terms of underlying mechanisms,” he says. “So it’s not surprising in humans when some of them insist false memories are true.”

Other researchers previously created 10-second artificial memories in mouse brain cells grown in a test tube. Another team also made false hybrid memories in living mice. Tonegawa’s team’s research took another step forward by apparently creating a whole new memory of danger in a chamber where mice had never received shocks.

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