Lest we forget…a pill that deletes bad memories?

Posted on October 21, 2011

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Dateline: 4 October 2011 // Posted by: Miriam Ondarre
Source: Daily Mail

Story: “Pill that can wipe away bad memories?”

Summary: Scientists have discovered a protein within the mice brains that might be essential in the memory storing process. This protein responsible for the amount of memories we store in our brains is called lipocalin-2. Apparently, in a study those scientists carried out with mice, they found that mice that cannot produce this protein have more “mushroom-shaped” junctions in the brain. These junctions have an important role in learning processes and memory consolidation.

It seems that our brain produces this protein whenever we are experiencing stress; this way, the number of mushroom spines is reduced and with them the memories associated with that particular stressful situation. Therefore, they think that a drug that would increase the amount of protein lipocalin-2 in our brain could help us reduce or erase the bad memories we want to get rid of. They also think that this drug could be useful for treating patients suffering from depression.

Dutch researchers have also discovered that a drug that has been prescribed for people with heart diseases could also help people to dispel bad memories.

In addition, latest researchers show that people, who stay calm during traumatic events, are able to remember fewer things than those people who panic.

Why is this PseudoNews? There are some erroneous assumptions in this article that makes you think that this is pseudoscientific news.

First of all, they mention that “some very stressful events would better be forgotten quickly or they may result in anxiety disorders”. This way, they are taking for granted that almost every event that has been lived as stressful has automatically a negative connotation; and this is not necessarily true. There are many happy situations in our lives in which we experience stress. For example, our wecding day, when we are about to open a Christmas presents, when we meet a friend you didn’t see for so long, when we are listening our favourite song…the list could go on and on.

Secondly, the article states that the drug containing protein lipocalin-2 could erase bad memories stored in our brain. However, neurologists are still doubtful about how our memories are stored inside the brain. They know that the hippocampus is crucial to learning and memory but know very little about the specific neural networks involved in that process. As such, we don’t know how many neurons or mushroom spines have to be destroyed to erase one memory or multiple memories.

And finally, even if we knew how many mushroom spines we would have to damage, we still wouldn’t know how to distinguish good and bad memories inside our brains. Therefore, how is a drug going to be able to select between the memories we want to delete and the ones we want to preserve?

What features of pseudoscience are on show? One of the pseudoscientific features that can be found in this article is lack of parsimony. As mentioned before, the fact that a drug with protein lipocalin-2 could erase painful memories in human brains relies on at least two unproven theories. One of them is that all memories concerning stressful moments in our lives will be painful, which it is not necessarily true.  And the other is that there is some kind of anatomical difference in the way good memories and bad memories are structured in the brain.

Another pseudoscientific feature is the lack of experimental control. It is assumed that protein lipocalin-2 is the only protein involved in memory storage. However, there are other chemicals in the brain that have also an important role when it come to memory and learning. For example, a hormone called cortisol, which is released by the adrenal gland during stress, is also well known for damaging neurons in the hippocampal formation (which is responsible for memory and learning processes among other functions). What is more, there is no reference of the side-effects of adding extra lipocalin-2 to the brain. It is unclear which exact memories would stay intact and which ones would be erased.

In addition, the experiment reported in the article lacks measurement accuracy. The experiment doesn’t say how many mushroom spines would be necessary to destroy to erase the bad memory, or how this might even be quantified.

The moral of the story: Despite the huge progress made in brain sciences over the past century, the fact is that we still know very little about how our brain works when it comes to specific functions, such as the creation and storage of individual memories. And even if we could target and wipe away specific memories, we may not welcome the results. Memories  are so much part of the human experience that we could be erasing part of ourselves.

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