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Celebrate this Fourth of July in style.
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Yelena Zhavoronkova’s Memories in Red | The New Yorker
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Using this technique, the team can briefly switch expression of the protein on or off so that it tags only those cells involved in encoding specific memories. In , Tonegawa and colleagues used the method to instill a fake memory in mice. In the experiment, published in Science , they traced two separate memories—one in the hippocampus, which encodes spatial aspects of memory, and the other in the amygdala, which assigns emotional value to events as we experience them.
Then they used optogenetics to make both sets of cells fire together.
Neuroscientists Plant False Memories in the Brains of Mice
Activating hippocampal neurons associated with a familiar cage and the amygdala neurons that fired when the mouse received a shock in the foot tricked the mice into later behaving as though they had been shocked in the cage, even though they had never been injured there. First, the researchers gave another group of male mice a mild electrical shock, then put them in a rectangular box where they could explore freely. When the rodents wandered into one side of the box, a laser implanted into their brains switched on and reactivated the cells that formed the memory of being shocked.
Even though the danger was all in their heads, the mice still quickly learned to avoid that side of the box. Next, the researchers took the mice out of the enclosure and provided what they consider to be a fail-safe source of rodent joy: contact with the opposite sex. For male mice never exposed to females before, "it's a big deal," says Roger Redondo, a postdoctoral student in Tonegawa's lab and lead author of the new work.
They wanted to see if stimulating neurons involved in forming the original fearful memory would make them more susceptible to positive input from new experiences, or simply make the animals afraid of females. The mice did not develop a sudden phobia of the opposite sex—in fact, quite the opposite occurred, Redondo says. Now, mice who had avoided the laser firing zone before sniffed around their enclosures looking for their former companions.
They even seemed drawn to the laser zone, suggesting that the light stimulation might be triggering pleasant reminiscences. Additional experiments showed that happy memories could also be soured if they were reactivated at the same time the mice were being shocked. Interestingly, the switch works only when applied to neurons in the hippocampus, and not the amygdala, Tonegawa says. Based on that finding and microscopic studies of the rodents' brain tissue, Tonegawa believes that there are two types of amygdala cell populations, one involved in fear memories and the other involved in positive memories.
Hippocampal neurons appear to drive which of the two populations wins out, he says. Although it isn't possible to put optic fibers directly into the human brain, the connection between the two regions could be the target for drugs or other therapies, he suggests.
A Red Heart of Memories
It's unlikely that reactivating such a narrow subset of cells in mice truly triggers the kind of rich, sequential memory that allows us to remember which route we took to get to work and what we ate for breakfast, Frank notes. Such distinctions are important when attempting to apply the results to disorders such as post-traumatic stress, he says.
By Ann Finkbeiner Jun. By Jeffrey Mervis Jun.