Memories of the Future

Dr. Todd Sacktor, courtesy of the New York Times

In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there’s a shop where you can go and have specific memories erased. Total bogus, right? Not really, says memory researcher Dr. Todd Sacktor of SUNY Downstate. He thinks the most unlikely part of the film is that the shop’s in a run-down building.

In the last few years Dr. Sacktor’s discovered a molecule, PKMzeta, that most neuroscientists now agree is essential for memory formation and storage. (I’d first heard about PKMzeta on page 8 of this article, featuring Dr. André Fenton.) I visited Dr. Sacktor in his Brooklyn lab to find out what this new understanding of memory could mean. I figured we’d talk about brain imaging and experiments with PKMzeta using lab mice. Instead, Dr. Sacktor offered up possibilities for altering memories that veer towards, in his words, “Philip Dick dystopian type” scenarios.

Dr. Sacktor says that doctors may one day be able to enhance old memories in Alzheimer’s patients with supplements of PKMzeta. Or even more incredibly, they could get rid of disturbing memories in the minds of PTSD patients. When you recall a memory, you have chance to prevent it from going back into long term storage. Dr. Sacktor says this might have something to with PKMzeta breaking down when a memory’s recalled. If this is the case, doctors could instruct a PTSD patient recall a memory. Then they’d apply PKMzeta blockers to prevent PKMzeta from reforming to help store that memory again, pretty much erasing it from the patient’s mind. However, scientists still aren’t sure how tightly individual memories link to each other. You want to destroy the memory of getting shot on Smith St? Well that the memory of being shot at might be intertwined with all your memories of Smith St, so erasing your traumatic memory could unintentionally erase all your memories of that locale. It’s a slippery slope, says Dr. Sacktor.

I was pretty tripped out by all this, so I went to check my facts with another memory researcher, Dr. André Fenton of New York University. He says these possibilities for memory manipulation using PKMzeta are still pretty speculative. Right now he’s mostly focused on just figuring out the basics of how memory works. However, he says such prospects for manipulations aren’t too far off to worry him. In fact, Dr. Fenton says he often questions himself about the ethics of his own line of work.