May 5

New technology promises the ability to erase bad memories


Even though it’s amorphous, memories can become a very authentic part of our identity, like freckles on your face or the markings on your favorite leather coat. usually wear.

Recalling a childhood friend as you gaze out along a green rice field can be a relaxing experience, but get caught up in a bad memory – like a difficult breakup, or a huge loss – it can make each of us feel stuffy.

But what if we erase those memories? This is an idea that has been explored before, but Philipp Kellmeyer, a neuroscientist and head of the Neuroethics & AI Ethics Laboratory at Freiburg University, has some doubts about this. Especially in terms of identity.

“Removing or constructing memories for purposes other than medical treatment obviously comes with great ethical problems,” says Kellmeyer. “Includes the ability to interfere with a person’s identity, or manipulate them by using fake memories to influence human behavior”

While many bad memories fade with the years, particularly painful memories can leave a permanent streak that manifests itself in post-traumatic (PTSD) form and makes aspects appear harmless in Everyday life has become very difficult to handle.

You might think that memory erasure technology sounds like a pipe, but it’s actually closer than it sounds. Computer neurologists are in the process of demonstrating a new type of PTSD therapy called “neural response decoding” (DecNef), in which they will collect and analyze brain signals using learning. machine for editing traumatic memories – all in silence, the sick person ignorant!

DecNef could pave the way to treating countless people with PTSD – at least, if the technology is in the hands of well-intentioned organizations.

Although the human brain looks like a lumpy mass of matter in the skull, they are actually the body’s powerful center of power, firing electrical signals to process all our movements or all stimuli. we encounter. Aurelio Cortese, a computer neuroscientist and investigator at ATR Computational Neuroscience, says these signals are something scientists are looking to take advantage of when studying DecNef.

“In DecNef, we use neural imaging data. A large magnet scans your brain, and measures changes in brain blood oxygen levels. This data is then processed in time. real-time via a computer that collects data from related brain regions “

The large magnet is part of the fMRI machine, a large tunnel-like machine similar to the CAT scanner you would normally see in a hospital. FMRI crawling isn’t all that new, but the difference about DecNef is that it uses machine learning to extract and reverse specific patterns in neural activity.

“Machine learning is used to learn neurologically specific manifestations of psychotic manifestations. This machine learning decoding algorithm is then used in the neural feedback process to detect trigger patterns and calculate the likelihood it will respond to a target model “

“DecNef participants receive a small reward every time a pattern-activating target in their brain is detected. This is to give participants control over specific brain processes. “- Cortese said.

Works in practice

Essentially, fMRI data collected during the reception of a painful stimulus (e.g., a slight electric shock, or fear stimulation with the image of an attacker) is analyzed by an algorithm. machine learning to separate a particular model from heterogeneous data.

The participants were then asked to self-regulate their neural activity through trial and error in order to match their brain activity with a series of goals in real time to receive a small sum of money. Although the participants assumed that they were simply playing a game, what they actually did was match their real-time neural activity to the above shot of nerve activity from the aforementioned painful stimuli.

Although studies in the past decade have found that this approach can significantly reduce the fears associated with old memories (even in PTSD patients), researchers are not entirely sure. sure why.

But many theories suggest that DecNef works similarly to exposure therapy (the gold standard for PTSD treatment, which works by slowly reducing fear through exposure), or by the counter-condition ( where fear of a stimulus will be replaced by a more positive response, such as receiving a reward)

However, Cortese emphasizes that that does not mean the memory itself will be erased, but will be transformed into a non-painful memory.

“One of the main goals is to reduce the effects of memories of distress, or memories of horrifying things,” Cortese said. “By repeatedly matching the neural manifestations of a memory or object with a small reward, the brain can forget the fearful side”

Why do people want to do that?

Cortese says this memory-altering technique can be useful in many situations, including helping to train concentration, enhance memory function, or relieve physical pain. But at the present time, research is mainly focused on the treatment of PTSD.

Contact therapy for PTSD – in which the patient is exposed virtual or in real life to a stimulant that causes fear – is the main treatment for the disorder, but it can be a The process is frightening and doesn’t always work for every patient.

Using DecNef could open a door to editing those memories without exposing the patient to the source of their pain. The current DecNef research process typically collects a neurological response to a stimulus in the lab, but it has also shown the possibility of using an alternate set of neurotransmitters to do so, meaning disease. one day there will be no more exposure to fear.

“This is really an achievement because it means we can build machine learning decoding algorithms without having to produce distressing images to know the neural manifestations (triggering patterns) of the brain.” to the patient, “said Cortese.

Memory is a fundamental part of a person’s story and is something that is tied to our ownership. For that reason, Cortese says that one of DecNef’s best traits (the ability to correct bad memories) is also a matter of morality.

“Since DecNef can be used to partially alter neurological behavior without a person’s knowledge, it should only be used in very specific situations, with close scrutiny from the muscles. ethics, “said Cortese.

Kellmeyer also said the technology is raising ethical concerns both in terms of data and “neural privacy”. Unlike lost credit card numbers, having stolen memory data can lead to much bigger consequences.

“Therefore, these issues need to be addressed both by careful ethical analysis and through regulatory / regulatory bodies to prevent abuse of memory editing”

Cortese hopes those ethical problems can be effectively addressed so that the technique has a powerful impact on people struggling with dark memories from their past.

“I hope one day it can erase a painful memory, or relieve symptoms of depression, or improve other mental states with just a few sessions with a counselor. Medical / psychological “- Cortese said.

“With a little more development and refinement, this technology really has the potential to help people dealing with psychotic disorders.”


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