Real Life Total Recall

MIT scientists gave a mouse fake memories.

Mice in a lab photo via Shutterstock

Mice in a lab photo via Shutterstock

MIT scientists went Total Recall on a mouse, and it worked.

We admittedly never saw the movie’s remake with Colin Farrell, probably because the original Schwarzenegger flick scared us enough in our childhood. But for MIT scientists, planting a false memory in the mind of a mouse is only the beginning. They made a mouse recall a memory of being shocked, and react accordingly, even though the mouse was never zapped.

The work, published last week in the journal Science, will help scientists understand how memories are formed and help them study human memory and it’s challenges. “We suspect and hypothesize this way of implanting false memories that was carried out with a mouse is actually something very similar [to what] is taking place during the formation of false human memory,” Susumu Tonegawa, a Nobel laureate and MIT neuroscientist who led the research, tells the Globe.

According to the Globe, this is how you implant false memories.:

The MIT experiments relied on a technique called optogenetics, which uses genetic manipulation and laser light to activate specific brain cells with remarkable precision. Because researchers can’t ask a mouse what’s on its mind, the researchers took advantage of a memory they could measure. When a mouse recalls and anticipates the unpleasant experience of receiving electric foot shocks, it freezes in place.

The researchers first placed genetically engineered mice in the chamber with reddish light, a black cardboard floor, and the odor of vinegar. As each mouse explored, viruses injected into a part of the brain involved in memory tagged active cells, inserting a protein that is sensitive to light.

A day later, the mice were put into a distinctly different chamber, suffused with the almond-like scent of benzaldehyde and with a metal grid floor. Fiber optic cables had been surgically implanted in the animals’ brains, and as they explored the second chamber, the researchers turned on a blue laser to flip on the cells that had been active when the mice were in the first room. They administered three, two-second-long foot shocks in succession.

Later, researchers put the mice back into the first chamber—the one in which they’d never been shocked. As the mice recalled the room, they froze in anticipation, showing they recalled a shock they’d never received in the room.

Now, the mind of a mouse is not like the mind of a human, but these studies can help researchers study the difference between reactions to false and genuine memories. False memories show up in courtrooms all the time, and after traumatic experiences sometimes people actually believe something that they think is a memory, but in fact it happened much differently then they remember.

According to the Globe, scientists won’t start planting false memories in people any time soon, but they hope that by succeeding with a mouse, they can learn more about and treat psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia, in which people experience vivid hallucinations that may be impossible to distinguish from reality.