Altering the Past or the Connectome?

It’s isn’t difficult for most of us pick out a memory or a moment in our lives that elicits an emotional response. Whether it’s an embarrassing moment, a decision we regret, or a truly traumatic event, the feelings that are associated with that memory are ones many of us would rather not have so close to the proverbial surface of our minds. But what if someone were to give you the chance to erase these specific associated emotions altogether while leaving other emotional memories largely in tact? Recently, studies at NYU and McGill have indicated two drugs (UO126 and propranolol respectively) that may give us this opportunity. Subjects with particularly traumatic memories such as rape or war are given the drugs after recalling the most salient and traumatic event, and the drugs work to retroactively erase the negative emotional response connected to the memory, leaving the individual to remember the event as factual rather than emotional. While there are many arguments both for and against the use of such drugs, I won’t go into the specifics of ethics quite yet. Rather, I’d like to consider how or if these drugs are affecting the connectome, and what it means to remove emotional connections therein.

As I stated above, the memory itself is not erased, only the emotions with which the memory was connected. From a neurological standpoint one can consider emotions to be physical in origin, that is, the product of hormones, neurotransmitters, and neuronal connections. Thus, it would make sense to me that these drugs act either by inhibiting the transmission of chemical/electrical signals (whether their production or their continuation) or by destroying the connections entirely; the latter would seem a much more permanent solution. Either way, however, we can say that these drugs are a means of changing our connectome, the map of every neuronal connection in our brain. The most interesting part about this, for me at least, is that we are able to isolate emotional memory from memory for events, and in doing so, we alter our perceptions of and responses to a stimulus without altering our actual knowledge of the event. Such specificity leads me to ask if emotion and knowledge equally important to our connectome, our neural identity, or if one type of pathway is necessary as a constant in order to maintain behavior.

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