Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.
Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.
The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.
So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.
The discovery of such an apparently critical memory molecule, and its many potential uses, are part of the buzz surrounding a field that, in just the past few years, has made the seemingly impossible suddenly probable: neuroscience, the study of the brain.
Now neuroscience, a field that barely existed a generation ago, is racing ahead, attracting billions of dollars in new financing and throngs of researchers. The National Institutes of Health last year spent $5.2 billion, nearly 20 percent of its total budget, on brain-related projects, according to the Society for Neuroscience.
Dr. Fenton had already devised a clever way to teach animals strong memories for where things are located. He teaches them to move around a small chamber to avoid a mild electric shock to their feet. Once the animals learn, they do not forget. Placed back in the chamber a day later, even a month later, they quickly remember how to avoid the shock and do so.
But when injected — directly into their brain — with a drug called ZIP that interferes with PKMzeta, they are back to square one, almost immediately. “When we first saw this happen, I had grad students throwing their hands up in the air, yelling,” Dr. Fenton said. “Well, we needed a lot more than that” one study.
They now have it. Dr. Fenton’s lab repeated the experiment, in various ways; so has a consortium of memory researchers, each using a different method. Researchers led by Yadin Dudai at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that one dose of ZIP even made rats forget a strong disgust they had developed for a taste that had made them sick — three months earlier.