Scientists delete 'fearful' memories of rats; raises ethical questions

  • Researchers have deleted 'fearful memories' of rats using CRISPR gene editing technology

  • Could help in treating pathological disorders like PTSD and drug addiction

Some often wonder if they could erase bad memories of troubled past, while some say troubles make one stronger. However, science can delete memories now! Researchers have deleted 'fearful memories' of rats using CRISPR gene-editing technology.

China's Peking University researchers published a paper in Science Advances that used gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to specifically remove only fearful memories from a rat. This would be helpful in treating chronic pathological diseases.

Rats were trained for three weeks and were conditioned to react in fear. After the function-specific gene was knocked down by CRISPR in the rat's neural circuits that are responsible for 'fear' memory, there was a significant reduction in reacting to the fearful conditions.

Negative emotions are part of memory too and could become a burden when such things can't be forgotten, further causing pathological diseases like post-traumatic stress syndrome, said Yi Ming, co-author of the paper said to ecns.

Chronic pain and stress and drug addiction among others belong to a class of pathological memories that are long-standing and difficult to be cleared from memory, especially when hard to know the exact mechanism to provide effective treatment, Yi said.

Importance of well-being of lab animals
Representational Picture Lucija T/Wikimedia Commons

Ethical Issues

If this becomes a reality, it could take us to some ethical issues too. We are what our memories are. When some are deleted, it could fundamentally change who we are. For instance, 'pain' can make us stronger to face challenges –as a saying goes –failures are the stepping stones to success. When some bitter memories are deleted in us, what would happen to the strength such memories have brought in us? Our relations are a result of our characters if our characters are changed by deleting memories, how would relations stand?

All these, assuming that the scientists delete the exact memories they wish to target. The study does not establish this aspect. "It remains challenging to achieve stable gene knockout or gene modification in neuronal subpopulations with specific connectional or functional features, especially in rats and nonhuman primates," write the researchers.

But, as Yi told, this could help greatly in treating psychological disorders. However, if this becomes a reality, then legal intervention in selecting the proper candidates for such a process should come to the fore.