The phenomenon of false memory has been well-documented: In many court cases, defendants have been found guilty based on testimony from witnesses and victims who were sure of their recollections, but DNA evidence later overturned the conviction.
In a step toward understanding how these faulty memories arise, MIT neuroscientists have shown that they can plant false memories in the brains of mice. They also found that many of the neurological traces of these memories are identical in nature to those of authentic memories.
"Whether it's a false or genuine memory, the brain's neural mechanism underlying the recall of the memory is the same," says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and senior author of a paper describing the findings in the July 25 edition of Science.
The study also provides further evidence that memories are stored in networks of neurons that form memory traces for each experience we have - a phenomenon that Tonegawa's lab first demonstrated last year.
Neuroscientists have long sought the location of these memory traces, also called engrams. In the pair of studies, Tonegawa and colleagues at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory showed that they could identify the cells that make up part of an engram for a specific memory and reactivate it using a technology called optogenetics.
Lead authors of the paper are graduate student Steve Ramirez and research scientist Xu Liu. Other authors are technical assistant Pei-Ann Lin, research scientist Junghyup Suh, and postdocs Michele Pignatelli, Roger Redondo and Tomas Ryan.
Seeking the engram
Episodic memories - memories of experiences - are made of associations of several elements, including objects, space and time. These associations are encoded by chemical and physical changes in neurons, as well as by modifications to the connections between the neurons.
Where these engrams reside in the brain has been a longstanding question in neuroscience. "Is the information spread out in various parts of the brain, or is there a particular area of the brain in which this type of memory is stored? This has been a very fundamental question," Tonegawa says.
In the 1940s, Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield suggested that episodic memories are located in the brain's temporal lobe. When Penfield electrically stimulated cells in the temporal lobes of patients who were about to undergo surgery to treat epileptic seizures, the patients reported that specific memories popped into mind. Later studies of the amnesiac patient known as "H.M." confirmed that the temporal lobe, including the area known as the hippocampus, is critical for forming episodic memories.
However, these studies did not prove that engrams are actually stored in the hippocampus, Tonegawa says. To make that case, scientists needed to show that activating specific groups of hippocampal cells is sufficient to produce and recall memories.
To achieve that, Tonegawa's lab turned to optogenetics, a new technology that allows cells to be selectively turned on or off using light.
For this pair of studies, the researchers engineered mouse hippocampal cells to express the gene for channelrhodopsin, a protein that activates neurons when stimulated by light. They also modified the gene so that channelrhodopsin would be produced whenever the c-fos gene, necessary for memory formation, was turned on.
In last year's study, the researchers conditioned these mice to fear a particular chamber by delivering a mild electric shock. As this memory was formed, the c-fos gene was turned on, along with the engineered channelrhodopsin gene. This way, cells encoding the memory trace were "labeled" with light-sensitive proteins.
The next day, when the mice were put in a different chamber they had never seen before, they behaved normally. However, when the researchers delivered a pulse of light to the hippocampus, stimulating the memory cells labeled with channelrhodopsin, the mice froze in fear as the previous day's memory was reactivated.