An alliance of boffins from Oxford University and Virginia, America say they have developed a technique for "writing directly to memory" in a living brain, "seizing control of brain circuits" to create a memory of an experience which had never actually happened.
Thus far, according to the research, the technique works reliably only on flies.
"Flies have the ability to learn, but the circuits that instruct memory formation were unknown," says Oxford insect-brain expert Gero Miesenböck. "We were able to pin the essential component down to 12 cells. It's really remarkable resolution."
The boffins were able to map the hapless dipterines' brains using a technique invented by themselves called "optogenetics". In optogenetics, "a simple flash of light is used to release caged-molecules present in selective neurons that then stimulate the activity of those neurons", so allowing one to find out what exactly those neurons do.
Having mapped the circuitry of the fly brain using tailored light flashes, the scientists found that they were able to specifically stimulate the magic twelve neurons to "give the flies the memory of an unpleasant event that never occurred". Experimental insects, given the brain-programming treatment, could be taught to fear and avoid specific odours - just as one might teach them by giving electric shocks, but without actually shocking them. The scientists describe this as "writing directly to memory".
Miesenböck says that traditionally, research on the human brain has involved monitoring neural activity and attempting to work out its relationship with what's going on in the user's mind in terms of perceptions, actions and understanding. This is, of course, notoriously difficult.
"It's more powerful to seize control of the relevant brain circuits and produce these states directly," states the brain-brainbox, worryingly.
The proper scientific writeup is published in the learned boffinry journal Cell, here (subscription). ®