In the Journal: The Ethics of Molecular Memory Modification

Guest post by Katrina Hui

What if memories could be enhanced or erased, not through traditional pharmaceuticals, but directly, through manipulation of the molecular processes that govern memory?

Several years ago, scientists thought they had found a single molecule believed to be the key to memory editing. This molecule, called protein kinase Mζ (PKMζ), appeared to play a crucial role in the preservation of specific long-term memories. Though its actual molecular mechanism remains unclear, the discovery demonstrates that memory is governed by molecular processes and can possibly be manipulated through such means. Though research is still in its early stages, the example of molecular memory modification raises some interesting questions about the ethics of memory that merit consideration.

According to current frameworks of memory, memories are made temporarily unstable after recall and are “rewritten” each time they are summoned before being stored again. Early research seemed to indicate that specific memories could be enhanced by increasing levels of PKMζ, then recalling the target memories. On the flip side, memories could be “erased” by interfering with the expression of the molecule at a similar point in time in the recall process, thus destabilizing and preventing the re-storage of previously held memories. To add to the excitement, modifying specific memories with PKMζ seemed to have few side effects on other memories or processes.

However, more recent research has called into question PKMζ’s involvement in long-term memory storage and maintenance, and it remains unclear if PKMζ really is as powerful as it was once thought to be.

Nonetheless, the possibility of manipulating memory through molecular means will continue to be investigated. Molecular memory modification (MMM) provides a new perspective on some unresolved ethical questions regarding memory. For instance, is there a “the duty to remember” certain valuable memories? This duty could have a place in the courtroom, for example, where eyewitness testimony, while notoriously unreliable, is also frequently used and sometimes essential. On the other hand, while requiring or perhaps even forcing people to remember might appeal to those with an authoritarian bent, in reality, the mechanism of action of MMM in particular requires active recall from the participant, illustrating how subject participation, a previously neglected topic in ethical debates about memory, could be essential.

More broadly, the example of MMM illustrates that the idea of “enhancing” memory, rather than a monolithic process, is multifaceted. The folk intuition of enhancing memory, generally implies remembering more, for a longer time. However, a closer examination of the molecular processes underlying memory functions, the term “enhancement” is shown to be vague, as there are many dimensions along which memory could be enhanced, such as fixing incorrect associations, eliminating temporary memory blocks, or even erasing memories in cases such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What ethical concerns are relevant and we mean when we use the term “enhancement” ultimately depends on how memories are altered. As research continues, new mechanisms for improving memory will emerge, and more precision about the ethical calculus will be required.


Read the full paper here.

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