A Bad Memory Erasing Pill

The February issue of Wired magazine contained an article about an interesting medical breakthrough related to memory. Scientists working on the development of a pill that can erase bad memories have achieved success in laboratory rats.

memory erasing pill

Bad memories, a thing of the past?

It is a long and detailed article, but I will try to summarize it in a few sentences. Memories are stored in different parts of the brian, emotions in one part, visuals in another etc. In order to remember something a sort of chain must be formed that link the separate parts of the memory, a chain formed by protein. If you can block the protein you can block access to the memory.

Scientists have been experimenting for decades to try and find a compound that can do this, and recently seem to have found one that works on rats. The experiment is relatively simple, the rats are exposed to series that they learn to recognize, an example might be a series of musical notes followed by a painful electric shock. As soon as the rats hear the first note in the series they get scared and agitated. Administer the compound and the association is lost, you can play the series and the rats no longer remember the consequences until BANG, the shock arrives.

Cruel but bearing important consequences, if the links in the chain can be broken then the memory is not cancelled but the individual no longer has access to it.

As I said above different parts of the memory are stored in different places, so the hope is that different compounds will be able to delete different aspects of painful memories. One might close access to the memory of the scent of an ex girlfriend who left you for your best mate, or the pain experienced in an accident, or the vision of your dog jumping out of your third floor bedroom window while chasing a ball that you accidentally threw too hard for him to catch, or other such traumas.

Talk is of selected memory loss by pill, but of course this is far in the future if ever at all, but the very prospect raises some interesting ethical dilemmas. We are who we are by experience. I don’t play with knives; I have a scar with 7 stitches in my hand to remind me why, but even without it the memory of a Christmas Eve trip to Wythenshawe Hospital lingers on.

And having seen various governments conduct more than questionable research on their own populations (and others) and I am not just talking about despot regimes but the very birth states of democracy themselves as this apology given by President Obama demonstrates, I sincerely question the ethics behind such a development.

So the question is this, are we seeing a great medical and technological breakthrough, a leap in human advancement, or the creation of another dangerous tool once it gets into the wrong hands?

How to proceed in the age of big data?

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times about the age of big data, and today at a science and technology conference I got into a conversation about the same thing with a US public health official.

Much has been written (and I am a guilty party) about Google’s quest for information, including allegations of infringements of privacy etc, but not all of this capability should be seen in a negative light. I would like to give you a few examples of why.

A wealth of data

Google collect all of the search terms used by every user and categorize them. Let’s take a hypothetical situation. You are director of a large hospital inManchester. What can Google tell you about your job? Well probably a lot, let’s say that this week there is an enormous peak in the search terms “Flu symptoms” used across the Greater Manchester area, or “rash on back and neck”. Indirectly the knowledge of these search trends tells you that you should prepare your hospital, because late next week you will have a massive influx of patients with the Flu or some other contagious disease as it takes hold of the population.

This information is potentially lifesaving, as one of the main problems with epidemics is they come out of nowhere and so health centres are not properly prepared.

Search terms can also give an indication of how the housing market will behave too, with a rise in searches for houses in a certain area being reflected 6 months later in new sales. The type of house searched could also improve planning, as developers would see what people were looking for and where.

Analysts and programmers are currently working on how to expand on the simple examples above using search terms as wider indicators, a system called ‘sentiment analysis’ looks particularly promising.

This form of analysis looks at terms used during on line communication and categorizes them in terms of their sentiments. The logic is that in an area that is prospering terms will be generally positive, but in an area that is threatened by demise, such as the closure of industry or other societal problems, the terms will differ. This is not dissimilar to the conversation analysis sociologists use to obtain a person’s own sentiments about their position in life, with their true feelings reflected in the terms they use without thought. The hope is that an accurate analysis of this type might signal unfolding problems before they become a reality so that action can be taken in specific areas to avoid social breakdown.

I have addressed these issues in more depth on the Bassetti Foundation website, but want to conclude by saying the following; in my posts I have often raised the issue of data collection as a problem, and collection of personal data for advertising or any other purpose for that matter does raise serious ethical issues, but here Google et al could be sitting on a mine of extremely useful and possibly globally important data if the technology and political will is developed to use it correctly.

Are user generated reviews reliable?

The current March to April issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine has an article about user generated reviews that raises some interesting issues. I looked at the commercial invasion of the blogging world in one of my previous posts, but here author Christopher Elliott raises the issue of interested parties posting positive comments about their own businesses and negative ones about others, raising their star status and damaging others.

I was particularly drawn to this article because it addresses a problem faced by frequent travelers, and having spent a couple of years all in all on the road with all of my worldly belongings on my back I can relate to the problem.

Local offering help to lost travellers

Ask a local for advice and he looks it up on his iPhone

When you are out there alone, who better to ask for advice than fellow travelers? Many look to the internet for recommendation, and here lies the problem, lack of competition. There are really only 2 large websites of reference, Yelp and Travel Advisor, so it is relatively easy to either build up a profile or destroy somebody else’s using different user names and computers.

Within the industry an understanding of the problem is widespread, and both companies named above defend their positions stating that they have vetting procedures to catch out the bogus reviewers. It is very telling however that after a British Advertising Standards Agency investigation, Trip Advisor changed its slogan from “reviews you can trust” to “reviews from our community”, the implications are obvious.

The broader implications are vast too, many people read reviews before choosing a dentist or a school for their kids, and a bit of underhand behaviour could easily destroy somebody’s reputation.

My personal opinion is that these problems are representative of wider issues of internet governance. They are essentially born out of monopoly, the democratizing power of the internet and peer to peer communication usurped by business interests and competition. An infiltration of commercial interest into a non commercial ideology, that of offering advice to someone who finds themselves in a position that you were once in, becomes unreliable.