For years, Sci-Fi films and speculative fiction novels have centered plots around brain manipulation and memory erasure, so the idea of this coming to fruition isn’t surprising. But would it be ethically ok to practice, and would there be any psychological setbacks?
Researchers are still trying to figure that out.
According to the National Library of Medicine, neurofeedback is the process of reading out information from the brain and feeding information back to the brain. This acts as a potential treatment for rehabilitation and psychiatric disease, notably post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The new neurofeedback technique, decoded neurofeedback (DecNef), uses functional magnetic resonance imaging as a treatment. With DecNef, researchers test cause-and-effect relationships between neural activation in targeted areas of the brain and changes in perception, cognition, and behavior.
In regards to psychiatric treatment for traumatic experiences, memory erasure is being explored. Neuroscientists are in the proof-of-concept stages of DecNef, where they collect and parse brain signals using machine learning to modify painful memories, according to Inverse. Those lasting memories that affect our daily lives and ignite PTSD/panic attacks could ultimately be erased.
However, there are researchers with concerns. Neuroscientist and Head of the Neuroethics & A.I. Ethics Lab at the University of Freiburg Phillip Kellmeyer expressed his concerns about identity changes.
“Targeted elimination or inception of memories for purposes other than medical treatment obviously entails huge ethical problems, including the possibility for interfering with a person’s identity … or instrumentalizing individuals by using false memory inception to influence their behavior.”
Aurelio Cortese, a computational neuroscientist and principal investigator of the ATR Computational Neuroscience Labs, is a big advocate for DecNef treatment. He argued that the main goal of this technique is to reduce the impact of traumatic memories.
“In DecNef, we use neuroimaging data. A big magnet that scans our brain, and measures changes in the levels of oxygen in the cerebral blood. This data is then processed in real-time through a local computer, that selects the data from the relevant brain area.”
“Machine learning is used to learn the neural representation of the target mental representation in the first place. This machine learning decoder is then used in the neurofeedback procedure, to detect the activation patterns and compute the likelihood that it corresponds to a target pattern.”
“DecNef participants receive a small reward every time a target activation pattern in their brain is detected. It aims to give participants control over some specific brain processes.”
Cortese also advised that this treatment could help train attention, increase memory function, and reduce physical pain.
DecNef has the potential to modify memories without re-exposing the patient to the traumatizing experience that’s being erased. A surrogate set of neural signals used to collect the neural response to a stimulus could one day skip a patient’s re-exposure to a painful event without them knowing about it.
In regards to ethical concerns, Phillip Kellmeyer argued that this technology could expose data and mental privacy. Memory data could be stolen, which would have a much larger damaging effect.
Cortese empathizes with the sentiment but insisted that the pros outweigh the cons.
“The hope is that it will one day be possible within few sessions paired with medical/psychological counseling to remove a traumatic memory, or to reduce depression symptoms, or improve other psychiatric mental states.”
“With a little further development and fine-tuning, this technology really has the potential to provide help to individuals facing disorders of the mind.”
I’m a full supporter of this treatment, believe it or not. Many within society could benefit from having brain-altering trauma erased from their psyche. My only indifference is the accidental erasure of more than one memory—good or bad. But time will tell.
I will keep you all updated on any new findings.
Until Next Time…
Photo Credit: Tech Story
Shinkeigaku, R. (n.d.). [A new neuroscientific approach using decoded neurofeedback (DecNef)]. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23196557/.
Wells, S. (2021, May 2). CAN DECODED NEUROFEEDBACK ERASE OUR BAD MEMORIES? Inverse. Retrieved September 26, 2021, from https://www.inverse.com/innovation/can-you-erase-memories.