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Love and Art Anticipate Neuroscience

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 9, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The tragic twelfth century love story of Heloise and Peter Abelard is still irresistibly intriguing. She was a brilliant young student, and he was a famous philosopher and theologian nearly twice her age. They fell in love, had a child and married in secret. Her enraged family had him castrated. They retreated to separate monasteries, and years later continued their love in letters.

Alexander Pope’s poem Eloisa to Abelard published in 1717, tells the tortured tale from Heloise’s perspective. She suffers deeply and begs forgetfulness. The poet imagined her anguished lament:

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd ...

Nearly three centuries later, in the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pope’s line and Heloise’s desperate desire are revisited by characters played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. It’s a zany, entertaining, touching and profoundly disturbing story about estranged lovers who rediscover their emotional bonds after undergoing treatments by a psychiatrist whose bizarre science fictional techniques obliterate memories of failed romances.

Recent news stories report that neuroscientists actually are getting closer to what Heloise and her cinematic descendants sought, and more. Scientists are discovering things in laboratories that might eventually erase traumas, chronic fear, post traumatic stresses, addictions and the memories that trigger them in humans.

The April 6, 2009 New York Times story "Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory” by Benedict Carey reports that a molecule called PKMzeta is present and active in brain cells at the moment they are connecting to consolidate a memory. As Carey explains it, cells activated by an experience "keep one another on biological speed dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event.” It seems that the brain retains memories by growing more efficient connections among these cells, and the PKMzeta molecules may be what keeps the "speed dial” turned on.

Researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, found PKMzeta is necessary for long term memory, and that a drug that blocks PKMzeta caused lab animals to forget what they had learned in the past.

Another important factor in memory formation is the set of neurons that make CREB, a protein that spikes in the lateral amygdala when a person experiences a scary event. A Scientific American story by Nikhil Swaminathan explains CREB is believed to be involved in memory formation in living creatures ranging from sea slugs to humans. Researchers at the University of Toronto reported in a paper published in Science that selectively deleting certain CREB-making neurons could wipe out a specific memory in mice. Mice taught to fear a specific tone were no longer afraid after the deletion, but their other memories remained intact.

Marie Monfils, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied the importance of timing in formation of a fearful memory. As a story explains it, each time a frightening memory is retrieved, in this case by a tone that reminded rats of having been shocked, the memory is in a labile state and susceptible to change. That means the process of consolidating the memory can be interrupted. Monfils realized that suggested a window of opportunity—a certain period of time during which the fearful memory could be diminished. Rats treated with this method did in fact show lower levels of fear when they heard the sound.

Dutch researchers using pictures of spiders have found that propranolol, drug used to treat high blood pressure, may reduce the intensity of the fear response in people previously known to fear spiders.

While all these findings are promising, researchers say we are still a long way from erasing specific painful memories in humans. Greater understanding of the working of memory, however, offers future hope for the millions of people struggling with Alzheimers, other dementias and age-related memory impairments.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience 

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