Is it Inception? Total Recall? No, science fact: False implanted in mice brains

Scientists manipulate brains of mice to make them think fake event really occurred

Science Editor

Scientists have successfully implanted false memories of an event that never happened into a brain as part of a study showing how easy it is to create inaccurate recollections of what happened in the past.

The study is based on research into the memories of laboratory mice but the scientists believe it could also explain false-memory syndrome in humans, such as cases where people honestly believe that something has happened even when they are told it did not.

False memory syndrome is important in court cases that rely on the veracity of eye-witness accounts, which can be notoriously unreliable. Almost three quarters of the first 250 convicted criminals in the United States who were exonerated as a result of new DNA evidence, for instance, were originally convicted on the basis of eye-witness testimony.

“False memory in humans often results from mixing different sources of information or confusing something thought or imagined with reality,” said Xu Liu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was part of the research team.

“In our study we brought back an old memory in the mouse brain and artificially associated it with a real stimulus, thus we generated a new memory for an event that never happened in reality. This illustrated one possible way how false memory can form in humans,” Dr Liu said.

“The technology we developed for this study allows us to fine-dissect and even potentially tinker with the memory process by directly controlling the brain cells,” Dr Liu added.

“It might be hard to imagine that mice have memories, but like other biological traits, memory is essential to life and thus is conserved throughout the animal kingdom, from sea slug, fruit flies, to mice and human,” he said.

The study, published in the journal Science, used specially-bred mice with a photosensitive pigment in their brains that stimulates the recovery of a genuine memory when the animals are exposed to a certain kind of light stimulus.

This has allowed the researchers to study nerve connections in the “memory cells” of a part of the mouse brain called the hippocampus. Pulses of light could be used to bring back a genuine memory as well as a false memory created by associating a true memory with the memory of a small but unpleasant electric shock.

Using this approach, the scientists were able to implant the false memory of being in a box where the mice were given electric shocks even when this did not actually happen, the scientists said.

They also found that the neural connections made during the formation of a genuine memory were practically identical to those made during the formation of a false memory – suggesting a physical basis for false-memory syndrome.

“We found that a false memory interacts with a true memory just like a regular memory. Also, the false memories activated the same region as true memories,” Dr Liu said.

“Interestingly, sometimes people are more confident about false memories than true ones. Without outside references, a false memory is as real as a true memory to us,” he said.

Although a pain stimulus was used in the experiment to stimulate the formation of a false memory in the mice about a fearful situation, the scientists believe other stimuli, such as a particular smell or taste could be used to implant and recover a false memory in the human brain.

“Whether it’s a false or genuine memory, the brain’s neural mechanism underlying the recall of the memory is the same,” said Susumu Tonegawa, director of the RIKEN-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics in Saitama, Japan, who led the study.

“Humans are highly imaginative animals. Just like our mice, an aversive or appetitive event could be associated with a past experience one may happen to have in mind at that moment, hence a false memory is formed,” Professor Tonegawa said.

The precedent: Alan Alda and the eggs

Trying to implant false memories into the minds of people is difficult, but not impossible. One of the most famous cases was the American actor Alan Alda who was making a science documentary about the work of Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

During a picnic lunch on a university campus Alda was offered a hard-boiled egg, which he refused on the grounds that he had made himself sick as a child by eating too many boiled eggs.

It turned out that Ms Loftus had managed to implant this false memory during a previous questionnaire session when she had revealed some “facts” to Alda about his childhood, which included being sick on eggs. She also managed to convince another experiment volunteer that he had got lost in a shopping mall as a child and was “found” by an elderly gentleman who led him back to his mother. Convinced of his false memory, the man even came up with a detailed description of the elderly man who had found him. He also rated this false memory as more real even than some of his genuine childhood memories.

Ms Loftus has also managed to convince people that on a previous trip to Disneyland they  had had an encounter with the cartoon character Bugs Bunny, even though this would have been impossible given that the buck-toothed rabbit is owned by the rival Warner Brothers film studio.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor