Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Losing your memory

How would you like it if someone showed you pictures of spiders while giving you a mild electric shock – and encouraged you to remember the images so you would come to associate the pictures with the pain? Then they have you in the next day, show you the pictures again, and try to startle you with random sudden noises? Then they measure how strongly you blink, in reaction to the sounds, to see if you’ve had a strong startle response. Oh, and did I mention that you and the group of people with you have been split into two smaller groups, known only to the researchers, who has given one lot of you a beta blocker – similar to that given to heart patients – and the other have received a placebo pill.. (There could also be a group there who get no pill but this isn’t reported in the Daily Telegraph article I’m reading about the experiment.) This is what Dutch researcher Dr Merel Kindt and his helpers have done with a group of 60 men and women. The result: the group given the beta blocker showed a much milder startle response than the others – and when they were re-tested the next day, after the drug had left their system – they still had a milder startle response than the others - leading researchers to the conclusion that the painful memories were erased. In theory, the report says, it could eradicate memories of traumatic events from years earlier. It might also help-patients overcome phobias, obsessions and eating disorders.
Across the Channel, British experts are raising possible ethical concerns: “... before eradicating memories we must reflect on the knock-on effects on individuals - society and our sense of humanity.” How can you learn from a mistake if you can’t remember it. Or, I could pose other questions: what effect are these drugs having on people who are already taking them for heart conditions? Are their memories already undergoing change/s? Would the use of beta-blockers be a feasible defence in a criminal trial – either for or against the accused?
Back here in Australia, T reminded me that wiped memory is part of the premise for Joss Whedon’s new (first broadcast in the us last Friday!) series, Dollhouse. In it the Dolls aka Actives are reset after each mission with new personas including memory, muscle memory, skills and language. The story follows key character Echo who begins to become self-aware, which you wouldn’t think would be a problem since the Actives are supposedly volunteers ... unless, perhaps, their deal is that they’ve signed up to forget. It may be some time before we know here I haven’t heard of an Australian release date yet.

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