Scientists able to ‘reverse’ emotions associated with memories

Erasing the anguish associated with a breakup or a traumatic event may soon no longer be confined to the realm of science fiction, or the central idea of the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” following an apparent breakthrough by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Neuroscientists at MIT have honed in on the pathway of brain cells that appear to control the way our memories become linked to emotions — and have been able to “reverse” the emotion in mice linked to a specific memory, turning bad memories into good and vice versa. They published the results of their study in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

By targeting specific brain cells located in the hippocampus — the center of the brain that deals with the formation of memories — the scientists were able to “turn on” those positive and negative emotions. They did this by using a technique called optogenetics, which uses a light-sensitive protein to track specific brain cells, allowing them to be switched on and off when pulsed with light.

Their experiment was done in mice, but the researchers say this circuit of brain cells could perhaps be a target for drugs that would treat post-traumatic stress disorder. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, the hope is that the fear and trauma associated with the memories of a painful event will gradually lessen the more a person talks about them. But isolating the area of the brain where the emotions are actually encoded with memory could greatly inform further research.


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