Bad Weekend?

August 21, 2017
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New research shows that weakening the connections between specific groups of brain cells can prevent the recall of fear memories in mice. The study, published earlier this week in the journal Neuron, has led some – including the study authors themselves – to speculate that this will eventually lead to treatments for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and, inevitably, to news stories mentioning the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which an estranged couple undergo a procedure to erase memories of each other from their brains.

Woong Bin Kim and Jun-Hyeong Cho of the University of California, Riverside used a combination of sophisticated techniques to identify those brain cells in mice that encode a specific type of fearful memory, and then to suppress them, so that the memory could not subsequently be “reactivated”.

Contrary to some of the news stories, however, this is not “a new approach to wiping memories from the brain”. Over the past five years, there has been a whole series of studies using optogenetics to manipulate memories in various ways, most notably from Susumu Tonegawa’s lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The novelty of this new study is the identification of the neuronal circuitry that encodes this particular type of fear memory – it has determined exactly which cells in the mouse brain do so and, equally importantly, the precise pattern of the connections they form with neurons in other parts of the brain.

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