Real-life ‘Inception’: Scientists implant false memories in mouse brains

A team of scientists from MIT and other institutions have successfully “implanted” false memories in a mice.

While the technique actually relies on a physiological and behavioral trick rather than a microchip or drug, it’s still the stuff of sci-fi: the literal inception of false memory.

“Memory is not a carbon copy but rather a reconstruction of the world we’ve experienced,” says Steve Ramirez, the study’s lead author.

That reconstruction is a process scientists have been able to isolate and manipulate in mice.

The methodology they used went something like this: They first placed the mice in a pleasant environment and isolated the brain cells storing this memory in light. They then placed the mice in a different environment and activated these cells with light light patterns, while also mildly shocking the mice. Lo and behold, when they put the mice back in the first (pleasant) environment again, they reacted with fear, even though their actual experience of that place had been pleasant. They had “implanted” a false memory of getting electrocuted in that place, even though it never happened.

“These are the once seemingly sci-fi questions that can now be experimentally tackled in the lab,” the study says, apparently referring to “Inception.”

While the scientists say human brains are far more complex and might not be as easily tricked, the same principle holds true: Our memories are active reconstructions and susceptible to suggestion and manipulation.

“If you want to grab a specific memory you have to get down into the cell level. Every time we think we remember something, we could also be making changes to that memory – sometimes we realise sometimes we don’t,” said Dr. Xu Liu.

More subtle forms of memory and our emotional response to them could provide a wedge between us and our bad behaviors. For instance, memory inception could help people help quit smoking by associating feelings of fear and unpleasantness with smoking to compete with the brain’s positive response to nicotine.

But yeah, living a waking dream is still a long ways off.