And Finally

Learning to forget

Chinese scientists claim they can make rats lose their memory


Making history or deleting it? A new piece of research causes a stir

History lessons in China are taught carefully, especially in cases of controversial events in the recent past, which are only hinted at in official records and almost impossible to read about online.

But a group of researchers from Peking University and Nantong University think they have found a more scientific way to delete recollections of the past – in rats, at least.

Their experiment consisted of exposing the rodents to small electric shocks in differently coloured boxes. Unsurprisingly the rats soon become fearful of going into the boxes. But once the scientists recoded some of the rodents’ brain cells – specifically the RNA of certain neurons – the rats lost their fear of the places where they had previously received shocks.

“Memory extinction via genome editing… might be a potential therapy for anxiety disorders, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder,” the scientists claimed in a paper published by Science Advances magazine.

However, research like this might bring back unwelcome memories of the work of Chinese bio-physicist He Jiankui (see WiC435), who is serving prison time for ethical breaches in creating the world’s first genetically edited babies (allegedly making them immune to HIV). China already stands out in the scientific community for allowing wider testing of CRISPR gene-editing techniques on humans with cancer.

By contrast the US only has a handful of heavily regulated studies underway. Scientists in other countries have also been cautious about China’s more permissive culture in medical research, concerned that the rush to trial new technologies in humans leads to inconclusive findings (because the tests aren’t controlled enough) or worse that they carry too much risk for the patient.

The neuroscientists who carried out the rat experiments made clear that they were researching ways to wipe out memories that relate to very specific behaviours – as opposed to deleting memory altogether. They also claim that their research helps to show how memories are formed.

But the public was far from comfortable with the idea of these techniques being applied.

“Why are we always trying to run through the bottom line of human nature with technology that violates all values and ethics,” one concerned weibo user responded. “Under no circumstances can it be used on humans. This time, you ask to delete the painful memories. What about next time? Will it be voluntary?” cautioned another.

Others asked who should get to decide what constitutes a “bad memory” and they worried about the extension of the research into areas where it could eventually become a tool for mind control.

Yi Ming, one of the authors of the research paper, told Technology Daily that the science was still a long way from human application. But he argued that in limited circumstances erasing of the memory could be of therapeutic benefit.

“Chronic pain, drug addiction and chronic stress are essentially pathological memories that exist permanently and cannot be removed after the patients have experienced the feelings and pressures brought by pain and drugs,” he said. “Theoretically, if we can ‘erase’ memories, it might provide a new way of thinking to treat diseases of pathological memory.”

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