Scientists Give Flies False Memories

A story in the Oct. 16 issue of the Cell scientific journal sounds like a premise for a science fiction writer. Scientists at the University of Oxford have figured out how to implant false memories in the brains of flies:

“Flies have the ability to learn, but the circuits that instruct memory formation were unknown,” said Gero Miesenböck of the University of Oxford. “We were able to pin the essential component down to 12 cells. It’s really remarkable resolution.” Those dozen cells are sufficient to manage what is a difficult cognitive problem: learning to associate a particular odor with something bad, like an electric shock. In essence, these cells create memories that the fly then uses to avoid that odor. …

Miesenböck said his team made some educated guesses about the parts of the brain that would be important for the flies’ learning task. From there, they were able to narrow it down through experimentation to the 12-neuron brain circuit. Remarkably, stimulating just these neurons gives the flies a memory of an unpleasant event that never occurred.

When this process works with humans, I’d like to remember the night in 1985 that I took Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles to my senior prom.