A cure for almost every memory ailment seems to be just around the corner. Alzheimer’s affected brains can have their memories restored, we can create hippocampal implants to give us better memory, and we can effectively implant false memories with light.
Except that we can’t really do any of these things, at least not in humans.
We sometimes forget that developments in memory science need to go through a series of stages in order to come to fruition, each of which requires tremendous knowledge and skill.
From coming up with a new idea, to designing an appropriate methodology, obtaining ethical approval, getting research funding, recruiting research assistants and test subjects, conducting the experiment(s), completing complex statistical analysis for which computer code is often required, writing a manuscript, surviving the peer review process, and finally effectively distributing the findings, each part of the process is incredibly complex and takes a long time.
On top of it all, this process, which can take decades to complete, typically results in incremental rather than monumental change. Rather than creating massive leaps in technology, in the vast majority of instances, studies add a teeny tiny bit of insight to the greater body of knowledge.
These incremental achievements in science are often blown out of proportion by the media. As John Oliver recently said “…[Science] deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and be turned into morning show gossip.” Moving from science fiction to science fact is harder than the media makes it seem.
In addition to being guilty of sensationalism, the media also often gets science wrong. Why? Partly because most journalists are not scientists. As author and science advocate Ben Goldacre says “My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.” While I don’t have quite as bleak a view as Goldacre, he makes the good point that many people who talk about science don’t actually know much about science.
Additionally, scientists are often terrible at making their work understandable to people who do not specialise in their field, and science can be so complicated that even scientists within the same field can misinterpret or oversimplify each others’ work.
All of this was made salient to me when I recently published a futuristic article on the possibility of controlling memories with ultrasound. Although intended as a ‘sci-fi vision of the near future’, my post was met with a few notable responses.
The first response to my article was a scientifically incorrect application of what I said. A prominent media outlet had picked up the piece and used it as the basis for the claim that we could potentially control memories with music. You obviously cannot hear ultrasound, so it is not music, a mistake that the website (luckily) immediately corrected upon it being pointed out to them on Twitter.
A more worrying response came from a neuroscientist on Reddit, PhD student Joseph Benetatos from the Queensland Brain Institute in Australia, who argued that I had ‘[mis]understood the original article’. Never one to shy away from critical discourse, I decided to engage with this. I contacted my critic, and asked whether he wanted to collaborate on a response. Lucky for me, he was keen.
Here is what he had to say about my futuristic vision of using the science of ‘sonogenetics’ for memory hacking. I think it is a great lesson on how and why memory science takes so long.
“It is not that Dr. Shaw is wrong but rather too optimistic. My critique is of the application in which the scientists first used this technique and how this translates to controlling memories.
The authors found a gated ion channel [the path through which cells ‘talk’ to each other] that was sensitive to low frequency ultrasound, and used gene editing technology to add the receptor [the part of a cell that receives messages from other cells] on specific neurons [brain cells].
The specific neurons targeted are responsible for making the worm move. When ultrasound was applied in a fluid that contained microbubbles which expand and contract in response to ultrasound, amplifying this signal the normally closed channel opened and the worms moved in a specific pattern.
This is an amazing breakthrough for science, but in my opinion does not open the door for controlling memories. The complexity of memory far exceeds the release of ions from a small set of neurons.
My research involves understanding Alzheimer’s disease. When you study the loss of memory, you gain a better understanding of what memory is. Memory can be described as a complex pattern being sent and received in the brain. Being able to continually produce and receive this pattern over time, the brain or specific neurons need to be able keep the structural design specific for memories. To do this requires changes to how DNA is used, and this far exceeds the practicality of sonogenetics.”
There you have it. As with most scientific explanations, hacking the brain with ultrasound is far more complicated than I would like it to be. Perhaps my vision of a sci-fi future really needed to be couched a bit more cautiously than I had originally expressed it.
Next time you read headlines that make science fiction seem like science fact, make sure you read the fine print as to what the research actually involved and whether the science is as close to application as the author makes it seem.
As always, stay skeptical my friends.