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New memory editing drug has potential to help, harm

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Hearing any news about altering the way people’s memories work always makes me think of the movie Paycheck. In this movie, the protagonist, an inventor, is hired to do a top-secret job, and then injected with a drug when he’s done so that he will forget all of the top secret work that he’s just completed. Of course, it turns out that he’s invented something terrible, and has to remember what exactly it is, using clues that he left himself before his memory was erased.

What always interested — and frightened — me about the movie, though, was the thought of having part of my memory completely and totally erased. I am a bit of a control freak at times, and the thought of not being in control of my own memories makes me more than a bit nervous. I was always able to comfort myself, however, with the thought that it was just a movie, and nothing more. Now, though, it turns out that may not exactly be true.

Scientists recently used an experimental drug in animal testing that when delivered to the brain, could block the activity of a substance that the brain needs to retain information in such areas as emotional associations, spatial knowledge, or motor skills. If enhanced, the drug could potentially help ward off dementia and other memory problems.

Of course, I think that any drug that could help combat dementia is worth investigating. I know firsthand how sad — and scary — it is for someone to lose their memories, and what an effect it has on that person and on others around them. However, I think that before diving headfirst into the benefits that this drug could have, we need to take a step back and look at all of its possible ramifications.

Sure, at first glance, it sounds like a dream come true. In addition to helping get rid of memory problems, the drug could also be used to help cure people of their fears, by getting rid of the first, frightening memory, or by erasing a particularly painful memory that has reshaped a person’s outlook on life.

But there’s a reason why our fears and our memories exist — they help to make us the people we are today. Fears remind us to be cautious about things. For example, being afraid of fire, or drowning, or heights are all fears that are based in legitimate things people need to be cautious of. And while painful memories certainly aren’t pleasant to think about, what good would it do to get rid of those memories just because they’re sad? Memories, both good and bad, make people what they are. It’s not just nature that shapes people — it’s their influences, their actions, their memories.

Plastic surgery, once a medical procedure geared toward burn or accident victims, has taken on a life of its own, and become less medically related and more of a facet of popular culture. Breast augmentations, now known as cosmetic surgery, have been removed from the realm of the medical field, and are now open to anyone who is unsatisfied with their appearance. And this is exactly what I fear will happen to the use of memory-altering drugs. Instead of being reserved for cases of medical necessity, like fighting dementia or helping to combat a seriously life-debilitating fear, the drugs will enter mainstream culture and be used to wipe out anything unpleasant.

If you’ve ever read The Giver, you know the emptiness that a life without memories could be. And while I don’t think that the memory loss drugs would ever approach such wide-spread use in society as in the book, I do believe that the drugs could lead to a number of problems in the future.

I’m not saying that I think the memory loss drugs should be completely be disregarded. The drugs, if used correctly and carefully, have a great potential for helping to cure dementia and other memory problems. But I am saying that researchers and doctors need to be very cautious when investigating these drugs and really look into their boundaries and limits. The more that is known about them, the less chance their use will become out of hand.