Proof it’s possible to enhance or suppress memories

Summary: Using optogenetics to stimulate different areas of the hippocampus has the ability to enhance or suppress memories in mice. The findings could have implications for suppressing memories associated with traumatic events in PTSD, and also in enhancing cognitive ability or improving memory for those with neurodegenerative diseases, in the future.

Source: Boston University

What if scientists could manipulate your brain so that a traumatic memory lost its emotional power over your psyche? Steve Ramirez, a Boston University neuroscientist fascinated by memory, believes that a small structure in the brain could hold the keys to future therapeutic techniques for treating depression, anxiety, and PTSD, someday allowing clinicians to enhance positive memories or suppress negative ones.

Inside our brains, a cashew-shaped structure called the hippocampus stores the sensory and emotional information that makes up memories, whether they be positive or negative ones. No two memories are exactly alike, and likewise, each memory we have is stored inside a unique combination of brain cells that contain all the environmental and emotional information associated with that memory. The hippocampus itself, although small, comprises many different subregions all working in tandem to recall the elements of a specific memory.

Now, in a new paper in Current Biology, Ramirez and a team of collaborators have shown just how pliable memory is if you know which regions of the hippocampus to stimulate–which could someday enable personalized treatment for people haunted by particularly troubling memories.

“Many psychiatric disorders, especially PTSD, are based on the idea that after there’s a really traumatic experience, the person isn’t able to move on because they recall their fear over and over again,” says Briana Chen, first author of the paper, who is currently a graduate researcher studying depression at Columbia University.

In their study, Chen and Ramirez, the paper’s senior author, shows how traumatic memories–such as those at the root of disorders like PTSD–can become so emotionally loaded. By artificially activating memory cells in the bottom part of the brain’s hippocampus, negative memories can become even more debilitating. In contrast, stimulating memory cells in the top part of the hippocampus can strip bad memories of their emotional oomph, making them less traumatic to remember.

Well, at least if you’re a mouse.

Using a technique called optogenetics, Chen and Ramirez mapped out which cells in the hippocampus were being activated when male mice made new memories of positive, neutral, and negative experiences. A positive experience, for example, could be exposure to a female mouse. In contrast, a negative experience could be receiving a startling but mild electrical zap to the feet. Then, identifying which cells were part of the memory-making process (which they did with the help of a glowing green protein designed to literally light up when cells are activated), they were able to artificially trigger those specific memories again later, using laser light to activate the memory cells.

Their studies reveal just how different the roles of the top and bottom parts of the hippocampus are. Activating the top of the hippocampus seems to function like effective exposure therapy, deadening the trauma of reliving bad memories. But activating the bottom part of the hippocampus can impart lasting fear and anxiety-related behavioral changes, hinting that this part of the brain could be overactive when memories become so emotionally charged that they are debilitating.

That distinction, Ramirez says, is critical. He says that it suggests suppressing overactivity in the bottom part of the hippocampus could potentially be used to treat PTSD and anxiety disorders. It could also be the key to enhancing cognitive skills, “like Limitless,” he says, referencing the 2011 film starring Bradley Cooper in which the main character takes special pills that drastically improve his memory and brain function.

“The field of memory manipulation is still young…. It sounds like sci-fi but this study is a sneak preview of what’s to come in terms of our abilities to artificially enhance or suppress memories,” says Ramirez, a BU College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences. Although the study got its start while Chen and Ramirez were both doing research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, its data has been the backbone of the first paper to come out of the new laboratory group that Ramirez established at BU in 2017.

“We’re a long way from being able to do this in humans, but the proof of concept is here,” Chen says. “As Steve likes to say, ‘never say never.’ Nothing is impossible.”

“This is the first step in teasing apart what these [brain] regions do to these really emotional memories…. The first step toward translating this to people, which is the holy grail,” says memory researcher Sheena Josselyn, a University of Toronto neuroscientist who was not involved in this study. “[Steve’s] group is really unique in trying to see how the brain stores memories with the goal being to help people… they’re not just playing around but doing it for a purpose.”

This shows hippocampal cells
This is what a bad memory looks like in a mouse brain. The cells glowing green indicate that they are being activated in storing a fear memory. The image is credited to The Ramirez Group, Boston University.

Although mouse brains and human brains are very different, Ramirez, who is also a member of the BU Center for Systems Neuroscience and the Center for Memory and Brain, says that learning how these fundamental principles play out in mice is helping his team map out a blueprint of how memory works in people. Being able to activate specific memories on demand, as well as targeted areas of the brain involved in memory, allows the researchers to see exactly what side effects come along with different areas of the brain being overstimulated.

“Let’s use what we’re learning in mice to make predictions about how memory functions in humans,” he says. “If we can create a two-way street to compare how memory works in mice and in humans, we can then ask specific questions [in mice] about how and why memories can have positive or negative effects on psychological health.”

Funding: This work was supported by a National Institutes of Health Early Independence Award, a Young Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, a Ludwig Family Foundation Grant, and the McKnight Foundation Memory and Cognitive Disorders Award

About this neuroscience research article

Boston University
Media Contacts:
Hilary Katulak – Boston University
Image Source:
The image is credited to The Ramirez Group, Boston University.

Original Research: Open access
“Artificially Enhancing and Suppressing Hippocampus-Mediated Memories”. Briana Chen et al.
Current Biology. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.04.065


Artificially Enhancing and Suppressing Hippocampus-Mediated Memories


• Acute activation of dorsal and ventral HPC engrams drives reward and aversion
• The ventral DG is preferentially reactivated in emotionally salient contexts
• Chronic activation of HPC engrams decreases or increases context-specific freezing
• Memory enhancement is disrupted when BLA cells processing fear are silenced

Emerging evidence indicates that distinct hippocampal domains differentially drive cognition and emotion; dorsal regions encode spatial, temporal, and contextual information, whereas ventral regions regulate stress responses, anxiety-related behaviors, and emotional states. Although previous studies demonstrate that optically manipulating cells in the dorsal hippocampus can drive the behavioral expression of positive and negative memories, it is unknown whether changes in cellular activity in the ventral hippocampus can drive such behaviors. Investigating the extent to which distinct hippocampal memories across the longitudinal axis modulate behavior could aid in the understanding of stress-related psychiatric disorders known to affect emotion, memory, and cognition. Here, we asked whether tagging and stimulating cells along the dorsoventral axis of the hippocampus could acutely, chronically, and differentially promote context-specific behaviors. Acute reactivation of both dorsal and ventral hippocampus cells that were previously active during memory formation drove freezing behavior, place avoidance, and place preference. Moreover, chronic stimulation of dorsal or ventral hippocampal fear memories produced a context-specific reduction or enhancement of fear responses, respectively, thus demonstrating bi-directional and context-specific modulation of memories along the longitudinal axis of the hippocampus. Fear memory suppression was associated with a reduction in hippocampal cells active during retrieval, while fear memory enhancement was associated with an increase in basolateral amygdala activity. Together, our data demonstrate that discrete sets of cells throughout the hippocampus provide key nodes sufficient to bi-directionally reprogram both the neural and behavioral expression of memory.

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