Missing memories are the stuff of concept-heavy movies and messy weekends. But what if you could wipe out selected events in your head without damaging the rest of your brain?
It sounds like a plot point in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but a group of scientists at the nonprofit Scripps Research Institute is working on erasing certain memories as a way to combat addiction. Courtney Miller is leading the research and she has high hopes for the practice, as long as it’s used ethically. I reached out to her to learn more.
VICE: Would you mind attempting to explain your work to me?
Courtney Miller: My lab is working on the role memory plays in addiction, in particular with relapse. For substance abusers it’s really hard when they come out of rehab and they’re trying to stay clean, because while they were using they developed a lot of associations between their environments and drug use. That leads to cravings that are really hard to fight. My lab is focusing on trying to weaken or erase only those memories, so hopefully they’ll have a fighting chance to stay clean.
So, if every time you took meth you watched The Simpsons, this drug will make it so TV wouldn’t remind you of meth anymore
That’s the idea, exactly.
How do you target specific memories without damaging others, or even the brain itself?
We used a couple of animal models where we teach them to associate things within their environment to drug use. In our study with methamphetamine they learn that one environment enables meth and another doesn’t. But what we found is the brain stores these drug-associated memories differently. By using a drug that targets that, it got rid of that memory; but because other memories weren’t formed in the same way they stayed intact.
The process of forming drug-associated memories seems to happen really fast, so we put a drug in that disrupts that. But the drug doesn’t work on a normal memory, because the cycle happens so slowly the memory can replenish itself before the drug can affect it.
Would people lose all memory of taking meth—like that entire time in their life?
We don’t know yet. We’re trying to work it out. To model that in animals is challenging. But the brain is really complex and good at associating a lot of things, so my hope is that while there may be strings of things connected [to drug use], it’s only the most direct memories that will be affected.
How far away are human trials?
Pretty far unfortunately. It’s just the nature of science. What we’re working on now is a safe way of targeting this process in the brain. Right now with rats, we put the drug directly into the brains, but with people we obviously can’t do that. They’d probably be taking it orally, or at best injected. We’re working on a way to do that safely, because there can be problems with things like muscle contractions and cell division.
Yes, but that’s a matter of taking the target through safety studies. I guess on an ethical or moral level there are interesting challenges; that’s where we just need to do a lot more experiments to understand the bounds of this. Our paper has been written about on a number of sites, and it’s interesting to look at the comments because people either think this is the most amazing thing in the world or history is bound to repeat itself with evil scientists doing this work.
That’s why I’m always careful to say our goal is only to target really, really problematic matters that support psychiatric disorders. But we also need to make sure that’s all that happens.
Why is that?
I’d venture to say there’s a dark side to everything if someone is motivated enough to find it. We’re still trying to figure out the boundaries of what we’ve got here, but we’re hopeful because it’s looking like only pathological memories can be disrupted in this way. Similar memories, like food for example, were untouched by our manipulation.
Are you concerned that your work could contribute to memory treatments that are less therapeutic and potentially less ethical?
Honestly, I spend a whole lot more time losing sleep over the people that email me with stories of how their lives are being ruined by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction.
You mentioned PTSD; can you foresee other applications for your work outside of addictions?
We’re working on the bounds of this right now, to figure out just how many and what types of memories are stored in this unique way. One thing we’re working on is whether it'll work with other drugs like heroin, oxycodone, or even nicotine and alcohol.
The other question [has to do with] traumatic memories, things associated with PTSD: are they also stored differently? We have reasons to believe that they may be, there might be something about really strong memories that the brain stores them in a different way.
Do you see memory erasure therapy as a last resort?
Or is it more of a stepping-stone; so instead of have five years of therapy you could just do this? I think it would be a good adjunct to therapy. Right now people are addicted to psycho-stimulants, like methamphetamine or cocaine, and it’s a real problem where the only treatment that’s available is therapy. Unfortunately therapy’s not terribly effective. It works but the relapse rates are really high.
So you’re talking about supplementing standard therapy.
Yeah, and I think that’s what’s unique about these memories; if they’re drug memories or PTSD memories, they constantly pop into your head unprovoked versus typical association memories you purposely retrieve. When they’re out in the world, trying to mind their own business and stay clean, everything around them is fighting against that.
It’s easy to get swept up in it;
just reading forums and talking to friends leading to this interview there were a lot of sci-fi references. Has that attention been positive or damaging to the perception of your work?
I don’t know that it goes either way. What it does is make sure that we always have that in mind, and it keeps the goal in focus—that it’s really about psychiatric disorders and it needs to be limited to that to be therapeutic. You don’t want to be forgetting memories of your grandmother at the same time that you’re just trying to get control of your life.
I guess that depends on your grandma. Looking beyond people on the internet, has the general scientific community been receptive?
Yeah I think so. I mean one of the things that makes my job interesting is that the topic is something people innately find interesting. I know I do. I mean how do our brains store memories? And how do we create these things? How do we maintain some memories for a lifetime? It’s pretty incredibly when you consider what’s going on in the brain. At the end of the day, memories are really made of proteins, and those degrade and have to get replaced. So what maintains this long-term thread is something fun for everyone to think about.
Also as I’ve said in the past, memories really make us who we are; which is why we don’t want to go and wipe everything out—that’s obviously not a therapeutic option.