Whose shell is this? Neuroscientists selectively wipe specific snail memories

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Johan Swanepoel/123RF

“It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but with snails” sounds like a desperate Friday afternoon pitch meeting at Pixar, where everyone’s a bit tired and just wants to get home for the weekend.

In fact, it describes actual work being carried out by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and Montreal’s McGill University.

For those who haven’t seen it, Eternal Sunshine tells the story of an estranged couple who use mind-wiping technology to have their memories of one another erased after they’ve broken up. Similarly — albeit without the relationship part — Columbia and McGill researchers have figured out how to selectively wipe some memories belonging to a certain type of marine snail, while leaving others intact.

They believe the research could make it possible to one day develop drugs that can “delete” certain traumatic memories without negatively impacting memories of other past events.

To carry out their targeted memory erasure, the researchers blocked certain molecules associated with an enzyme called Protein Kinase M (PKM), which is a crucial part of retaining long-term memories. Their work is described in a paper published in the journal Current Biology.

While it’s so far only been demonstrated on snails, they believe the work represents a valuable insight into the way that memories are laid down, and that its findings could be extrapolated to humans as well. That’s in part due to the fact that the PKM-protecting protein KIBRA is expressed in humans, and that mutations of this gene have been shown to result in intellectual disability.

“What makes the results reported in the paper promising is that the molecules we examined are expressed in mouse and man, and have been found to participate in long-term memory and long-term synaptic plasticity,” Samuel Schacher, a professor of neuroscience in the department of psychiatry at Columbia, told Digital Trends. “Homologous forms of the PKMs, and KIBRA in particular, are expressed in man. In elderly people with Alzheimer’s and old-age forms of dementia, the expression of KIBRA is compromised. This provides additional impetus to explore the panoply of different molecules contributing to the maintenance of different forms of synaptic plasticity and memory. Once the catalog of molecules is available, the design of specific drugs to affect the function of specific molecules can be examined in more ‘advanced’ animal models, and hopefully designed for use in humans.”

Proper regulation to ensure such drugs aren’t abused could make the results another smart tool in the arsenal to help improve life for people suffering from anxieties from traumatic memories. Even more traumatic — if you can believe such a thing exists — than breaking up with Jim Carrey or a blue-haired Kate Winslet.