Total Recall: Gene Code May Help Us Find A Murderer

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Memories have a unique genetic signature in the brain — a code that has only just been discovered and unlocked. The findings, seen in mice, suggest we may be able to read people’s memories by examining the patterns in their brains and even one day alter or repair them to treat psychiatric disorders or memory loss.

The brain seems to store memories in new connections between neurons. To do this, the neurons need to make new proteins — a process that is thought to be controlled by hundreds of genes.

A team at Hebrew University in Jerusalem led by Dr. Ami Citri discovered that various experiences led to different changes in gene activity in the brains of mice. The mice were given positive or negative experiences — electric shocks, a sugar treat, a chemical that made them feel ill or cocaine. An hour later, they were euthanised and the team looked at which genes had been active in the seven areas of the brain involved in memory.

Dr. Citri found that all mice given a particular experience showed the same general pattern of gene activity. Patterns were so clear that the team could guess what experience a mouse had with over 90 per cent accuracy. While each experience had its own pattern, the signatures of the more positive experiences were relatively similar, as were the negative ones, suggesting bad memories and good memories are recorded differently. Previous events also had an effect. The memory of sugar had a different signature if it was a mouse’s first taste, compared to if it already had a sweet tooth.

The pattern of gene activity seemed to peak about an hour after the experience. Dr. Citri hopes it will be possible to detect genetic memory signatures in blood samples so the code could be read in live animals or people. The findings may give deeper insights into conditions such post-traumatic stress disorder, and even lead to new treatments that alter memories. Instead of changing how patients respond to past traumas or phobias, their genetic signature could be altered — turning a painful memory into a positive one.

The memory code might even reveal the most recent experiences of a murder victim. For example, it might be possible to reveal if they saw someone they knew before they died. ‘You would have to get in there extremely quickly,’ said Prof. Clea Warburton of the University of Bristol. ‘It probably wouldn’t give you more information than a good forensic scientist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with a film about this.’

She says treating memory loss may be a better application of the findings. ‘If we can identify the brain regions and proteins necessary for memory formation, we can manipulate the neurons. When people have brain damage, we could help restore memory.’

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