Imagine you could permanently erase a traumatic memory… Would you?

While the idea might seem like it belongs to the realm of science fiction, researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children have taken a first step towards turning this idea into reality, saying that they have found a way to successfully target and delete fear-based memories in laboratory mice.

“Each memory is held by a unique combination of cells in our brain,” Sheena Josselyn, a senior scientist with the hospital’s department of neuroscience and mental health, told CTV News Channel. Josselyn says that she and her team have been able to isolate the cells, or neurons, that contain fear-based memories.

“Once we found that, we could use a genetic trick to kill or ablate just these neurons,” she said.

The result, Josselyn explained, was that the lab mice could remember everything except the targeted fear memory.

“They acted as if it had never happened.”

For those living with PTSD, such as former soldiers or survivors of violent crimes, Josselyn’s research could have far-reaching implications in how they receive mental health treatment in the future.

“Right now, for post-traumatic stress disorder, people can take a medication,” Josselyn said. “It affects their entire body, their entire brain. Our research tells us that we could maybe design better ways of targeting just those cells that are important in that memory rather than drugging the entire brain.”

Josselyn’s research, however, has also created serious ethical concerns, namely that one could have unsettling memories removed from their brains just to make life more pleasant. Such a situation formed the plot of the 2004 film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ in which a couple, portrayed by actors Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, both have their memories of their relationship erased following their breakup.

“We all have bad memories, we all have good memories, and we’re sort of the product of that,” Josselyn said. “But we’re talking about somebody with something like PTSD: a soldier that comes back from war; a rape survivor that cannot get past these memories. They intrude upon their everyday lives. They really affect their functioning. What our studies tell us is it might be possible to go in and erase just that one specific memory.”

The team’s findings are slated to appear soon in the academic journal Neuropsychopharmacology.