Fans of the blockbuster film "Inception" will recall corporate conman Leo DiCaprio's dream-bending antics where he infiltrated the subconscious of his targets with implanted memories.
Mind control has long been the domain of Hollywood and science fiction, but new memory-implanting research on mice by Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientists may be the first step in unlocking the mystery of false memory syndrome.
Using a technique called optogenetics, Nobel laureate and neuroscientist Susumu Tonegawa and a team of MIT researchers manipulated individual cells in the mouse hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory formation, to make them responsive to light.
In the experiment, several mice were placed in a chamber glowing with reddish light and allowed to explore. The next day, they were placed in a second chamber and given electric shocks on their feet to encode a fear response. Scientists also shone light into their brains, activating memories of the first chamber.
When the mice were placed back in the first chamber, they froze, expecting shocks that never came. "We call this 'incepting' or implanting false memories in a mouse brain," Tonagawa told the journal Science, which published the research.
He said powerful false memories in humans may be created in a similar way.
Humans are very imaginative animals. Independent of what is happening around you in the outside world, humans constantly have internal activity in the brain," said Tonagawa. "So, just like our mouse, it is quite possible we can associate what we happen to have in our mind with bad or good high-variance ongoing events.
"In other words, there could be a false association of what you have in your mind rather than what is happening to you."
This becomes a serious problem for witnesses identifying criminals in a lineup or recalling certain events in court.
The case of Troy Davis, a Georgia Burger King employee who was executed in 2011 for the shooting death of a policeman, is among a number of cases that call into question the reliability of witness memory, particularly in death penalty proceedings. In many other cases, convictions based on eyewitness testimony have been overturned following the introduction of new DNA or other corroborating evidence.
Tonagawa said that by showing how false memory and genuine memory are based on almost identical brain mechanisms, the study may help prevent future cases of wrongful conviction.
"We hope our future findings along this line will further alert legislatures and legal experts how unreliable memory can be."