Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear,a traumatic loss,even a bad habit.
Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats,with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory,like emotional associations,spatial knowledge or motor skills.
The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced,the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.
So far,the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.
The discovery of such an apparently critical memory molecule,and its many potential uses,are part of the buzz surrounding a field that,in just the past few years,has made the seemingly impossible suddenly probable: neuroscience,the study of the brain.
If this molecule is as important as it appears to be,you can see the possible implications, said Dr Todd C Sacktor,52,a neuroscientist who leads the team at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center,in Brooklyn,which demonstrated its effect on memory. For trauma. For addiction,which is a learned behavior. Ultimately for improving memory and learning.
Artists and writers have led the exploration of identity,consciousness and memory for centuries. Yet even as scientists sent men to the Moon and spacecraft to Saturn and submarines to the ocean floor,the instrument responsible for such feats,the human mind,remained almost entirely dark,a vast and mostly uncharted universe as mysterious as the New World was to explorers of the past.
Now neuroscience,a field that barely existed a generation ago,is racing ahead,attracting billions of dollars in new financing and throngs of researchers. The National Institutes of Health last year spent $5.2 billion,nearly 20 per cent of its total budget,on brain-related projects,according to the Society for Neuroscience.
Endowments like the Wellcome Trust and the Kavli Foundation have poured in hundreds of millions of dollars more,establishing institutes at universities around the world,including Columbia and Yale.
The influx of money,talent and technology means that scientists are at last finding real answers about the brain and raising questions,both scientific and ethical,more quickly than anyone can answer them.
Millions of people might be tempted to erase a severely painful memory,for instance but what if,in the process,they lost other,personally important memories that were somehow related? Would a treatment that cleared the learned habits of addiction only tempt people to experiment more widely?
And perhaps even more important,when scientists find a drug to strengthen memory,will everyone feel compelled to use it?
The stakes,and the wide-open opportunities possible in brain science,will only accelerate the pace of discovery.
In this field we are merely at the foothills of an enormous mountain range, said Dr Eric R. Kandel,a neuroscientist at Columbia,and unlike in other areas of science,it is still possible for an individual or small group to make important contributions,without any great expenditure or some enormous lab.