Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a way of retrieving lost memories using optogenetics. The researchers studied mice that were showing early signs of the neurodegenerative disease Alzheimer’s by identifying brain cells that were linked to the mice receiving a shock to their feet. They then stimulated the cells using an optogenetic process which involved using blue light to trigger the memory cells and found that this led to the restoration of the memory of the shock. The treatment, according to the researchers, appears to have boosted neurons to regrow small buds–which are known as dendritic spines–that form connections with other cells.
MIT reports that the optogenetic procedure cannot currently be used in humans due to its invasive nature, however, the results show that those lost memories can still be retrieved with a little help. The researchers are hopeful that the findings raise the possibility of developing future treatments that might reverse some of the memory loss seen in early-stage Alzheimer’s. Susumu Tonegawa, senior author of the study, remarks that “the important point is, this a proof of concept.”
The important point is, this a proof of concept. That is, even if a memory seems to be gone, it is still there. It’s a matter of how to retrieve it
The study published in the journal Nature shows that memory loss in patients with Alzheimer’s is not because the brain can’t code new information as previous studies had thought but that the problem lies in the process of retrieving a memory. The Guardian reported that although the study is exciting, the practicalities of using optogenetics means we are still many years away from knowing if it would be possible to restore lost memories in people. However, Tonegawa comments that their findings have helped with the possibility of developing technology that could lead to “future treatments”
It is possible that in the future some technology will be developed to activate or inactivate cells deep inside the brain, like the hippocampus or entorhinal cortex, with more precision. Basic research as conducted in this study provides information on cell populations to be targeted, which is critical for future treatments and technologies.