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Mice plant false conclusions in the brains of neuroscientists

29/07/2013

Who saw this story claiming that a team of MIT neuroscientists had planted false memories in the brains of mice?

Pretty typical of the crap that passes for science journalism in our mainstream media and the crap that passes for neuroscience in our research laboratories.

There is no convincing evidence that Tonagawa planted false memories in mice or even that mice can experience false memories. What was demonstrated was association and conditioned response, just like Pavlov did with his dribbling dogs over a century ago. The fact they stimulated neurons directly with channelrhodopsin and laser light rather than indirectly via bells and auditory nerves is neither here nor there.

What they may have done is provided evidence of neuronal engrams (all the articles I’ve seen fail to mention that engrams are a hypothesis with very little supporting evidence thus far) but even that is pretty doubtful. While there is strong evidence that the hippocampus is involved in memory formation it seems very unlikely it would be involved in engram storage too. Damaging it can prevent the formation of new long term memories but does not seem to have a significant effect on the retrieval of old ones. The hippocampus seems to be a kind of memory switching centre and would soon clog up if it also had to hold data about long term memories. It’s not very big you know.

Neither the abstract of their paper nor any of the articles I have read about it mention blinding or any control group whatsoever.

Locations of themselves act as powerful memory triggers in people and there is longstanding evidence that they do the same for other animals. They may easily have got the same effect by tickling the mouse’s tail in the first room then tickling it again along with a pain stimulus in the second. Putting the mouse back in the location of the first tickle might then cause a chain of association location-tickle-pain that results in a fear response. That would not be evidence that mice use their rear ends to think but failing to use such controls may be evidence that neuroscientists do.

False memories are typically planted in people narratively via suggestion (see, for example, the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and 90s). There is no reason to believe mice even have a narrative memory. “Josephine” notwithstanding, it seems very unlikely that mice tell stories about themselves or store memories as words (although a narrative of journey – a mousey Songline, or ‘Scentline’ – cannot easily be ruled out. Bees seem to do it with dance.).

What Tonagawa’s team has demonstrated is the ability of neuroscientists to make huge conceptual leaps across vast gaps in their data powered by little more than hubris and a desire for headlines.

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From → rant

3 Comments
  1. The most interesting part that I love is brain. Scientist yet are unable to figure out how a simple neuron grow and connect in our body. How on earth they will be able to plant a false memory. This complex brain secrets so far scientist are still stunned.

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    • That provides a good excuse to quote Emerson Pugh :-

      If the human brain was simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

      I think there’s still plenty to be learned in neurology but, like genetics, the field has been overrun with hype and marketing and has attracted a large number of technically able but rather small minds.

      The real problem with stories like these is that the researchers’ imperative to publish – problematic as that was – has now been trumped by their imperative to publicity. There’s nothing like worldwide headlines to lock in your next grant.

      Last year I wrote of an even worse example of this sort of thing in the field of genetic engineering. I guess I should be grateful for it because that story caused such a fit of outrage I became manic and had a psychotic episode that cured me of almost a decade of the worst depression I have ever experienced.

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  2. well written article Pearl … thank you …

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