New Science of Making Memories

How neuroscientist Steve Ramirez and his MIT team made a memory

By John D. Adams

brain-art“Everything that I have ever loved has one thing in common…” enthuses neuroscientist Steve Ramirez. “Shakespeare, music, medicine, biochemistry… they are all produced by a brain.” In 2014, Ramirez, just 26 years old, and his MIT colleague Xu Liu, were awarded the prestigious Smithsonian Ingenuity Award, for capturing lightening – and human memory – in a bottle.

Ramirez and his MIT colleagues have all come to the school’s Memory Research Laboratories because they have courage and, frankly, the funding, to ask and answer one of neuroscience’s greatest questions: Can we, without the use of outdated mood and psychotropic medications, create a false memory or impression in our brains? In short, can we make memories? Their extraordinary answer: Yes.

How to make a memory
“The human brain is a miracle. A most resilient organ. A storage unit for everything you’ve ever known. Or seen. Or felt. It’s all still in there. Whether or not you’re conscious of that,” stated Dr. Walter Bishop on the cult TV show ‘Fringe.’  The stuff of science fiction? Not anymore. In just two short years, Ramirez, Liu and the Memory Lab team had built an infrastructure to support their theory that an artificial negative or positive memory could be laser-fired into the brain.

Genetically altered mouse neurons, based around the memory centers of the hippocampus portion of the brain, will now react to a laser shot of light. This light is fired while a real negative or positive stimulus is happening in real-time to the mouse. This laser imbeds that memory into the brain, thus creating a memory.

“And now we were ready for the literally million-dollar experiment,” said Ramirez. The mice were now neurologically “plugged in” to the laser and placed in three completely unique environments. In the first environment,  a mild shock was induced, the laser fired, the mouse now theoretically retains that “negative impression.”  The mouse was then placed in the second environment. As it sniffed around to investigate, the laser fired again,
igniting that “shock memory.” It refused to move.  It had recalled a false memory and physically reacted to it. Ramirez and the team were astounded. Third environment? Same results. The first attempt at their “million dollar experiment” had worked.

Enabling the disabled mind
“The million-dollar experiment had been our first attempt, and when it actually worked, the floodgates really opened up,” said Ramirez.
Subsequent experiments began to reveal, on a somewhat profound level, how memory works. The amount of experiments that could now be possible will define multiple careers.

Ramirez’s latest groundbreaking work begins to ask how we can wean ourselves off of the current “drug psychiatry” that has really been the only treatment option for a host of psychiatric disorders. “How can we reverse some of the symptoms associated with PTSD?” asked Ramirez. “How deeply does Alzheimer’s Disease gobble up memories? We are literally working on the next paper we are submitting. [The paper] focuses on reactivating positive memories in the context of psychiatric disorders. Our concept is that there are other areas that hold the
contents of memories. Can we go in surgically and modulate those? Can we suppress the emotion content of PTSD?

“It’s fun as hell,” laughs Ramirez. His enthusiasm overflows with passion for the minds who created literature, poetry, music, art, science… “I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is to work on things that frankly, even to me, still sound like the stuff of science fiction. It is hard not to be fully in love with it.”
Watch Steve and Xu present their findings in typical, comedic way at TED.

New Science of Making Memories