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Steve Ramirez, Neuroscientist

Picture of Steve Ramirez standing in his lab
Photograph by Becky Hale, National Geographic Creative

Steve Ramirez, Neuroscientist

Can Memory-Manipulation Research Crack the Code for Alzheimer's?

When Steve Ramirez was a child, his cousin went into a coma during childbirth. The incident led him to become fascinated by the way the brain works. Today, as a Ph.D. student at MIT's Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, he is researching memory. Can we manipulate consciousness by implanting or erasing memories? Can we replace a bad memory with a good one?

Talking from his lab at MIT, Ramirez explains how his parents' El Salvadorian background shaped his character; why his research may one day lead to a cure for Alzheimer's; and how, one day, memory-manipulation techniques could be used to treat psychiatric disorders, like depression or PTSD. —Simon Worrall

 

How did you become interested in neuroscience?

 

I was in junior high, and one of my cousins went into labor. She didn't get enough oxygen and ended up in a coma that she's never really come out of ever since. I remember Googling brain matter and wondering, how is it that the stuff of consciousness can be so easily snuffed out? I couldn't help her. But I could at least try to understand what had happened.

I have always had wide-ranging interests. I'm interested in biochemistry and love Shakespeare. So when I went to college, I had zero idea of what I wanted to do with my life. All these disparate fields didn't seem to have anything in common. But after taking a couple of classes, I realized that the common denominator was that they're all products of the brain. That seemed enchanting. And after working in a couple of labs, I fell in love with it.

 

Your parents are from El Salvador. How did this shape your goals?

 

It shaped everything. My parents left El Salvador to escape the civil war, and give the family an opportunity at an education and a fighting chance at a stable living. My parents would always say that there are a lot of things that people can take from you, but an education is something no one can take. So my upbringing was my most powerful motivator. Growing up in a family that was fighting to make it gave me that fighter's mentality. For me, it's never a matter of, Can I do something? It's a matter of, How can I get it done? That was my parents' approach and it left an indelible mark on me.

 

Your work is focused on memory. Describe your work in the lab and what you're learning about the way memory works.

 

We're learning both how memory works and how to hijack memory and get it to do what we want it to. The main focus of our work is to find the brain cells that house a particular memory and then trick those brain cells to turn on or off in response to pulses of light. We're also learning how to change the contents of memories, like making a traumatic memory less fearful and traumatic. The logical extension of that is to try and use this memory-manipulation technology to suppress psychiatric conditions, such as depression or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].

 

The idea of erasing and implanting memories sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. Describe the potential benefits and dangers of this work.

 

I always take the "knowledge is power" approach. The more we understand about how the processes of memory work in the brain, the better equipped we will be to understand when those processes break down. In terms of the blurry ethical boundaries this work inevitably raises, if you look back to the 1980s, when the Human Genome Project was getting started, many people were concerned that this would result in genetically modifying humans. But by the time the genome was completed, while not perfect, the appropriate legislation and social infrastructure had been put in place to handle these concerns. That's why we have been trying to get this conversation started yesterday, so that, two and a half decades from now, if this ever truly reaches people, we will have the legislation and social infrastructure to tackle these ideas head on.

 

Alzheimer's is a growing problem all over the world. Does your research have implications for that?

 

Absolutely. That is one of the most directly applicable problems many of us are trying to work on. By generating some decent animal models of Alzheimer's, we can answer questions like, Is it burning the library of memory down? Or is it burning down the librarian, so the memories are still there but you just no longer have access to those books of memory? There's a lot of literature on that particular problem, but we can go and systematically test and dissect it, so we can isolate the processes that go awry with Alzheimer's in order to prevent or even reverse them.

 

What inspires you in your work?

 

I love science-fiction movies. I'm a huge Christopher Nolan fan, and I love movies like Inception. To be able to take what seems the stuff of sci-fi and ground it in experimental reality is awesome. We're living in an age where you can toss around ideas like memory manipulation or creating a false memory—and it's not a Christopher Nolan film! It's something that's actually happening in the lab every day. What gets my juices flowing is going into that uncharted territory.

In Their Words

To be able to take what seems the stuff of sci-fi and ground it in experimental reality is awesome.

—Steve Ramirez

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