A fascinating article was posted on the Daily Mail today. Apparently some scientists were trying to curb the appetite of a patient suffering from obesity by stimulating his brain with electrodes. They didn't cure his eating disorder, but they did end up improving his memory. As the article points out, the potential for this to be used as a treatment for patients with Alzheimer's is going to be something a ton of people are going to want to explore. I'm no neurologist, so I don't know if this is possible, but I think it would be interesting to see if this would also be viable in treating people with amnesia.
Of course, I think there are going to be some interesting situations that come out of this. Let's say that this ends up working reliably, and it becomes common practice to use it as a treatment. There's no way that the doctors are going to be able to control which memories return. They may be able to single out short-term and long-term memories, as they are in different sections of the brain, but there's no way they'll be able to help you remember specific items or events.
That leads us to a problem. Who is to say that the memories retrieved will be good ones? The article states that the patient "experienced vivid memories of an event that occurred 30 years earlier." How vivid are we talking here? Is it like reliving it all over again? What if the doctors trigger a particularly horrible memory that had previously been blocked by the brain in order to protect the person? This kind of recovery could lead to other medical problems, such as the creation or recurrence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or even, depending on the intenseness of the memory, hallucinations or delirium.
Of course, this all depends on the type of life that you've led. If you've lived a relatively uneventful and happy life, this treatment may be nothing but good for you. But if you were, say, a POW in Vietnam or a police officer in a particularly violent area, use of this treatment may have more adverse than positive effects. Of course, everyone has bad memories of some sort, and there's always the chance that the doctors will bring back something the patient doesn't particularly want to think about.
The ethical question arises when we return to the point of the initial article: treating Alzheimer's. A patient with this disease, depending on it's severity at the time, may not be able to make the decision for treatment on their own. Should a spouse or relative be allowed to ask for this treatment? Some would say that the benefits outweigh the risks, but I'm not so sure. For all you know, the memories that you want the patient to have won't be the ones retrieved, and you may end up just making the situation worse. Keep in mind that this isn't going to cure Alzheimer's, just treat a symptom.
I think that people would end up filling out an Advance Directive for this type of treatment in the event they contract Alzheimer's in their old age. This is probably the best solution, since it would allow the patient to make the decision themselves as well as avoid any crazy controversy like that which surrounded Terri Schiavo. Whether this ends up becoming a commonplace treatment or not, it is definitely something that will be interesting to follow as it is explored. I'll be keeping my eyes open for anything new regarding this discovery.