I read an interesting story the other day on a website called New Scientist about a bunch of brainy types implanting memories into the brains of birds in an attempt to manipulate behavior.
At least I think my memory of reading it is real and I’m not actually plugged into a pod like structure sucking out my soul to energize the planet via a Matrix-like situation.
I’m not a conspiracy theory person. I don’t believe there are aliens in prison cells at Area 51 or that there are shadow governments run by the illuminati or that Sept. 11 was an inside job.
But I do take pause when I read about scientists studying ways to tinker with human brains.
According to the author of the story, Todd Roberts and some colleagues at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center are working on understanding how memories are encoded in the brain – particularly memories that guide the development of speech and social skills.
As part of the process they implanted memories into the brains of zebra finches that changed the length of notes they sing. It involved manipulating a region of the brain that birds use to learn their song.
According to the story, the zebra finch song consists of a series of short notes, or syllables. Zebra finches normally learn their song by memorizing the song of their father, then slowly learning to copy it.
Roberts said previous work had shown that a region of the brain in birds called HVC is important for learning songs, and disrupting its activity interferes with the ability to learn songs. The area receives input from another area called NIf, and neurons in this structure fire at the beginning and end of syllables.
That suggested those neurons have a role in coding the length of syllables.
To investigate further, Roberts’s team used a technique called optogenetics to manipulate neural activity at the connections, or synapses, between NIf and HVC neurons.
The process involved inserting genes into neurons that allow them to be controlled by light, then using small fiberoptic cables to shine light onto the selected brain area.
Roberts’s team performed the experiments on young male zebra finches that had never been exposed to singing adults but were starting to develop their own song. The group then analyzed differences in the final tune about 30 days later.
When the team used short pulses of light, the birds produced songs with short syllables. With long pulses of light, the birds produced songs with long syllables.
“We identified a pathway in the brain that if we activate, it can implant false memories for the duration of the syllables, without the bird having experience with another bird,” says Roberts.
According to researchers, dozens of genes involved in the vocal learning that underpins human speech show similar patterns of activity in songbirds. In light of these similarities, Roberts says the mechanisms of vocal learning in the bird brain could serve as a model for understanding how animals learn from social experiences.
“We can use that information to perhaps pinpoint circuits in the brain that might be particularly affected in neurodevelopmental conditions like autism,” he says.
While that’s all fine and dandy, the thought (is this really my thought?) of voluntarily letting anyone manipulate the thoughts and memories in a human brain is a scary proposition and reminiscent of any number of science fiction movies where mind control is the central theme.
Of course, who is to say this isn’t already being done in one way or another? We’d never be able to prove it since there is no way to really know if a memory is real or implanted once it is injected into a brain.
And this recent bird brain manipulation isn’t the first case of this type of scientific study.
Several years ago a couple of MIT students used their evil brain powers to insert fake memories into mice.
Steve Ramirez, a then 24-year-old doctoral student, and his colleague, Xu Liu, decided to try and experiment where they used light to plant a false memory in a mouse’s brain that it had received an electric shock when placed in a small metal box with a black plastic floor.
On Christmas Eve 2012 Ramirez stuck the mouse in a box and instead of taking off and doing mouse stuff the rodent “instantly froze in terror, recalling the experience of receiving a foot shock in that same box.”
It was a textbook fear response, Ramirez told a magazine at the time, “its memory of the trauma must have been quite vivid.”
In 2015, some French scientists took it all a step further.
According to another story in New Scientist (a magazine that has been around since the 1950s for any who are wondering at this point how legit the source material is), Karim Benchenane and colleagues at the Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in Paris, France, hijacked this process to create new memories in sleeping mice.
The takeaway was that someday the same technique could one day be used to alter memories in people who have undergone traumatic events.
According to the story, the team targeted the rodents’ place cells – neurons that fire in response to being in or thinking about a specific place.
Benchenane’s team used electrodes to monitor the activity of mice’s place cells as the animals explored an enclosed arena, and in each mouse, they identified a cell that fired only in a certain arena location. Later, when the mice were sleeping, the researchers monitored the animals’ brain activity as they replayed the day’s experiences.
A computer recognized when the specific place cell fired; each time it did, a separate electrode would stimulate brain areas associated with reward.
When the mice awoke, they made a beeline for the location represented by the place cell that had been linked to a rewarding feeling in their sleep.
A brand-new memory – linking a place with reward – had been formed.