Monday, April 6, 2009

Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory


This science article was brought to my attention by Gothamist, and I was intrigued by all the ethical issues it raised, which I always feel is lacking in many science articles.

Benedict Carey of the New York Times reports that scientists in Brooklyn have recently discovered that a drug they have been experimenting with- ZIP- could potentially erase or edit our memories. Currently, they have only experimented with animals, but the neuroscientists are confident that it could be used in humans. They think it would be groundbreaking because ZIP could help with trauma patients, or even alter addiction patterns.

However, there are some ethical concerns raised in the article, like how the drug could be misused to forget crimes, bad behavior, or even traumatic experiences that form a person's moral compass.

And the first thing I thought when I read this article was of Dollhouse. The new Fox show created by Joss Whedon is about a secret government entity, Dollhouse, that basically rents out mind-wiped individuals that have been replaced with new memories and personality so that they can meet their clients' needs. After an engagement with a client is over, the Doll's brain is wiped again and they resume their tabula rasa state.

Dollhouse has great potential for complexity, but I am just going to stick to the above very-bare-bones description of the show. One of the reasons why I am so thoroughly alarmed by the prospect of this new ZIP drug is because I remember in one of the episodes of Dollhouse, a character says something that might be accurate of our future, outside of sci-fi TV. He said that if such a technology– such as wiping a human's brain and implementing new memories– exists, then people will surely take that technology and use it for greedy purposes. He reasoned that according to history, humans have never been able to just let things alone. An example would be how we learned how to harness hydrogen energy, and then created the atomic bomb.

Can you imagine if this drug were possible? Even if we don't get to the creepy euphemism-for-prostitution scenario in Dollhouse, the uses that doctors have planned for ZIP can still raise some epic self-awareness issues. If we are talking about a traumatic experience, such as being raped, and the rape victim got that particular memory erased, he/she will also risk losing whatever new awareness that comes with this terrible burden- like avoiding situations that could lead to rape; or if the rapist was a close friend or family, learning about people and whether or not they are trustworthy.

How about for the case of addiction? The scientist in the article proposes that using ZIP could erase addiction tendencies in the brain. But then that brings up serious questions about the choices we make and how responsible we are for them. If we, as individuals, are aware of our personhood, we should try our best to overcome our demons. Why should something as debilitating and as life-changing as a drug addiction be erased by a simple injection? As we have learned, the reason why some drug addicts refuse to go back is because of the immense will power it took for them to get over their addiction (and on the other hand, a lot of drug addicts do relapse, so who knows.) If we can get rid of our addictive desires with a simple medical procedure, it might persuade drug addicts that being a drug addict might not be as much of a burden as it previously was, and they could be more easily persuaded to try the drug again (because they would never addicted) or even try other drugs.

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