Scientists have implanted a false memory in the brains of mice in an experiment that they hope will shed light on the well-documented phenomenon whereby people "remember" events or experiences that have never happened.

False memories are a major problem with witness statements in courts of law. Defendants have often been convicted of offences based on eyewitness testimony, only to have their convictions later overturned when DNA or some other corroborating evidence is brought to bear.

In order to study how these false memories might form in the human brain, Susumu Tonagawa, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his team encoded memories in the brains of mice by manipulating individual neurons. He described the results of the study in the latest edition of the journal Science.

Memories of experiences we have had are made from several elements including records of objects, space and time. These records, called engrams, are encoded in physical and chemical changes in brain cells and the connections between them. According to Tonagawa, both false and genuine memories seem to rely on the same brain mechanisms.