Monday, April 06, 2009

Benedict Carey: Brain Power -- Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory

("Artists and writers have led the exploration of identity, consciousness and memory for centuries.")

Brain Power: Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory
New York Times

Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.

So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.

The discovery of such an apparently critical memory molecule, and its many potential uses, are part of the buzz surrounding a field that, in just the past few years, has made the seemingly impossible suddenly probable: neuroscience, the study of the brain.

“If this molecule is as important as it appears to be, you can see the possible implications,” said Dr. Todd C. Sacktor, a 52-year-old neuroscientist who leads the team at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in Brooklyn, which demonstrated its effect on memory. “For trauma. For addiction, which is a learned behavior. Ultimately for improving memory and learning.”

Artists and writers have led the exploration of identity, consciousness and memory for centuries. Yet even as scientists sent men to the moon and spacecraft to Saturn and submarines to the ocean floor, the instrument responsible for such feats, the human mind, remained almost entirely dark, a vast and mostly uncharted universe as mysterious as the New World was to explorers of the past.

Now neuroscience, a field that barely existed a generation ago, is racing ahead, attracting billions of dollars in new financing and throngs of researchers. The National Institutes of Health last year spent $5.2 billion, nearly 20 percent of its total budget, on brain-related projects, according to the Society for Neuroscience.

Endowments like the Wellcome Trust and the Kavli Foundation have poured in hundreds of millions of dollars more, establishing institutes at universities around the world, including Columbia and Yale.

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