The past couple of months have been heavy for us at The Scientist. Heavy for everyone. From our home offices, we’ve been tirelessly reporting on the global pandemic that continues to grip the world in its stranglehold. We are trying to stay atop a flood of information and stories that need telling as we also contend with challenges that most of us have never confronted, and none of us will likely soon forget. At the same time, we continue to search across the life sciences for other nuggets of research worth sharing. This month, our issue is focused on the science of memory.
Our memories make us who we are, subconsciously driving our behaviors and dictating how we view the world. One of the most interesting things about memory is its imperfection. Rather than serving as a precise record of past events, our memories are more like concocted reflections, filtered and distilled from pure reality into a personal brew that is formulated by our own unique physiologies and emotional backgrounds. The wholly unique universe we each create—separate from but still tethered to the actual universe—is the product of electrical signals zapping through the lump of fatty flesh inside our skulls. Biology gives birth to something that exists outside the boundaries of biology.
The neural machinery involved in the formation, storage, and retrieval of memories is coming to light in labs across the world, but science has not yet solved this particular puzzle. In this issue, you’ll read about talented researchers who use modern tools such as optogenetics and genome editing to probe the biology underlying memory. In lab animals, these scientists can force the recall of memories at the flick of a molecular switch, implant false memories, and erode a real memory to the point of vanishing. Through these studies and others, perhaps science will one day robustly characterize memory’s biological nuts and bolts. But will we ever truly understand, and perhaps directly manipulate, the personal reality created by each individual’s brain?
What scares me most at this juncture in world history is how the COVID-19 pandemic will live in the memories of those affected by it. The patchiness of the current global predicament will dictate our individual familiarity with the ravages of SARS-CoV-2. Some will remain largely unscathed by illness, many will feel the economic pinch of societal lockdowns, many will also lose friends or loved ones to the virus, others will succumb to it themselves. No one will emerge unchanged.
Memories living within the survivors will mirror the array of individual experiences. For many, traumatic memories of the pandemic—whether that be illness from the virus or any of the hardships that come along with social isolation and the global economic downturn—will become uninvited guests, intruding on the daily business of living. On the opposite end of the spectrum, with any luck, many young people living through this reality will recall this period of their lives with a hazy bemusement. “Remember when we were kids, and we got to stay home from school with Mom and Dad for months on end?” Again, the mountain of memories that will accrue in this complicated time will not faithfully record the events now unfurling. Rather, they will form smudged reproductions of the difficulties we are all grappling with. Those memories, and the behaviors they drive, will linger, perhaps for generations.
The scientific enterprise is currently front and center. Millions around the world are counting on researchers and clinicians to pull us from the darkness of this pandemic, as dozens of drugs and vaccines make their way through development and organizations around the globe work to distribute accurate tests that can track the spread of the disease. And this is only the first battle. In the months and years to come, those of us who survive this episode will again call on healthcare providers and scientists to rescue us from the mental and physical aftereffects of the pandemic. For the foreseeable future, the world will need science and medicine more than ever before in recent history. And we will need humanity in equal measure. No matter the complexion of our memories of this time, it is my sincere hope that we can treat one another and the researchers striving to corral and vanquish this viral foe with understanding, compassion, and respect.
This issue of The Scientist is dedicated to the late Nicola F. Morabito (1923–2020), my grandfather and an inspiration to many. Memories of him, imperfect reflections of reality though they may be, will live on in me and in the others whose lives he touched.