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In quest to understand human brain, false memories are planted in mice

  • Article by: JAMES GORMAN New York Times
  • July 25, 2013 - 8:28 PM

The vagaries of human memory are notorious. A friend insists that you were at your 15th class reunion when you know it was your 10th. You distinctly remember that another friend was at your wedding, until she reminds you that you didn’t invite her. Or, more seriously, an eyewitness misidentifies the perpetrator of a terrible crime.

Not only are false, or mistaken, memories common in normal life, but researchers have found it relatively easy to generate false memories of words and images in human subjects. But exactly what goes on in the brain when mistaken memories are formed has remained mysterious.

Now scientists at the Riken-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they have created a false memory in a mouse, providing detailed clues to how such memories may form in human brains.

Steve Ramirez, Xu Liu and other scientists, led by Susumu Tonegawa, reported Thursday in the journal Science that they caused mice to remember being shocked in one location, when in reality the electric shock was delivered in a completely different location.

The finding, said Tonegawa, a Nobel laureate for his work in immunology, and founder of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, of which the center is a part, is yet another cautionary reminder of how unreliable memory can be in mice and humans, and adds to evidence that he and others first presented a year ago in the journal Nature that the physical trace of a specific memory can be identified in a group of brain cells as it forms, and activated later by stimulating those same cells.

Edvard I. Moser, a neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said recent research this year and last was the closest they have gotten to pointing to a spot in the brain and saying, “That is the memory.”

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