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The ethics of molecular memory modification
  1. Katrina Hui1,
  2. Carl E Fisher2,3
  1. 1Michael G DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  2. 2Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA
  3. 3Masters of Bioethics Program, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Katrina Hui; katrina.hui{at}medportal.ca

Abstract

Novel molecular interventions have recently shown the potential to erase, enhance and alter specific long-term memories. Unique features of this form of memory modification call for a close examination of its possible applications. While there have been discussions of the ethics of memory modification in the literature, molecular memory modification (MMM) can provide special insights. Previously raised ethical concerns regarding memory enhancement, such as safety issues, the ‘duty to remember’, selfhood and personal identity, require re-evaluation in light of MMM. As a technology that exploits the brain's updating processes, MMM helps correct the common misconception that memory is a static entity by demonstrating how memory is plastic and subject to revision even in the absence of external manipulation. Furthermore, while putatively safer than other speculative technologies because of its high specificity, MMM raises notable safety issues, including potential insidious effects on the agent's emotions and personal identity. Nonetheless, MMM possesses characteristics of a more permissible form of modification, not only because it is theoretically safer, but because its unique mechanism of action requires a heightened level of cooperation from the agent. Discussions of memory modification must consider the specific mechanisms of action, which can alter the weight and relevance of various ethical concerns. MMM also highlights the need for conceptual accuracy regarding the term ‘enhancement’; this umbrella term will have to be differentiated as new technologies are applied to a widening array of purposes.

  • Enhancement
  • Neuroethics
  • Ethics
  • Technology/Risk Assessment

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