TIME Brain

Erasing Bad Memories May Soon Be Possible

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Getty Images (1); Illustration by Mia Tramz for TIME

Using state of the art laser and gas techniques, scientists working with mice make stunning breakthroughs in turning bad memories into better ones

Memories are a complex combination of objective information—the color of a car, the size of a building—and less tangible emotional feelings, like fear, anxiety, joy, or satisfaction. But to scientists, memories are nothing more than a series of chemical and physical changes, the firing of a nerve here, which sends electrochemical impulses to another nerve there, which together encode everything that we associate with a memory.

But exactly what do those changes look like? And is it possible to override them? In a milestone paper published in the journal Nature, scientists may have provided some answers, explaining how emotional baggage gets attached to memories, and how that can be manipulated to quite literally turn bad memories good. In separate work appearing in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers say that a commonly used anesthetic gas, xenon, if administered at exactly the right moment, can also strip the painful and negative feelings associated with a traumatic memory, essentially neutralizing it.

The findings from both groups come from mouse studies, but the two teams are confident that the results will further efforts to understand and find new ways to treat depression and post traumatic stress disorder in people.

In the Nature study, Susumu Tonegawa and his team showed for the first time exactly where in the brain both positive and negative memories are created, and how these emotional layers can be switched around. They exploited a cutting-edge technique they developed called optogenetics to track an emotional memory as it’s made and also manipulated in the brains of mice. They studied both positive experiences—male mice were allowed to spend about an hour with female mice—and negative experiences—the mice were given mild foot shocks.

MORE: 5 Secrets to Improve Learning and Memory

First, the researchers administered a protein, called channelrhodopsin, into mice nerve cells that were activated during and immediately after those experiences (the positive and the negative). The protein reacts to a specific blue wavelength of laser light—and the scientists discovered that when that light was administered to the the part of the mouse’s nerve cells that fired up after those good or bad experiences, the emotion associated with the memory was relived as though it were happening all over again, even absent the stimulus that created it in the first place.

“Optogenetics for the first time allowed us to pin down the cells in the brain that literally carry the information for a specific memory,” says Tonegawa.

The real revelation came when the scientists tested how malleable the connection between the shock and the memory was. They allowed the shocked mice to spend time with females while their brains were hit with the blue light—which triggered their fear of the shock even though they didn’t get one. After 12 minutes of the laser exposure, the mice relaxed. But it wasn’t that they had replaced their fear with more pleasant feelings. Images of their brains showed that new circuits, presumably the ones associated with more positive feelings of being with females, had sprouted between the emotional regions of the brain and the memory center. Likewise, the mice that had had the pleasurable experience with their female counterparts were given the shock while exposed to the blue light, and now showed more fear and anxiety. The original emotional associations were not eliminated and replaced. Instead, says Tonegawa, the positive and negative circuits compete with each other, and whichever is dominant becomes the prevailing emotion linked to a memory.

MORE: This Is the Brain Circuit That Makes You Shy

That could explain how some psychotherapy currently works. To help depressed patients address their feelings, some therapists will revisit negative or emotionally painful experiences. Because memories are not recalled and returned in exactly the same way like a recording, any new information attached to that memory—such as more neutral or positive perspectives about the episode—can help to diffuse its negative impact. Tonegawa’s work in animals suggests that it’s possible to make that psychotherapy technique even more effective if therapists can help patients to focus on more positive feelings while reconsolidating painful memories.

That’s what another group, at McLean Hospital, is hoping to do with a much more simplistic strategy. Edward Meloni, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Marc Kaufman, director of the McLean Hospital Translational Imaging Laboratory, found that the gas xenon, which is used in anesthesia (primarily in Europe), can neutralize the fear associated with a traumatic memory. Exposing mice that had experienced foot shocks to the gas dramatically reduced their fear behaviors – such as freezing up and avoiding areas associated with the painful shock – for up to two weeks. That’s because xenon preferentially targets certain receptors, called NMDA, on brain nerves that are concentrated in learning and memory regions. So when a traumatic memory is activated, those neurons involved in recalling that memory are prime targets for xenon, which blocks the cells from making their usual connections to the emotional hub in the brain known as the amygdala. “My speculation is that xenon lessens the impact of the emotional component, the real emotional pain associated with a traumatic experience,” says Meloni.

MORE: Memories Can Now Be Created — And Erased — in a Lab

It’s not clear yet whether the gas will have similar effects on long-standing traumatic memories such as those involved in PTSD, but Kaufman and Meloni plan to set up a human trial as soon as possible. Ideally, says Meloni, if xenon proves to be effective and safe for reshaping memories, patients who experience debilitating nightmares would be able to give themselves a squirt of xenon just as they would use an asthma inhaler. Since the gas dissipates quickly, so far there doesn’t seem to be a reason to worry about other potentially harmful effects on the brain.

And what about situations that don’t quite reach the level of PTSD, but are traumatic nonetheless, such as the death of a loved one or a bad breakup? “In general I think those painful experiences are probably not going to be impacted by xenon because there really isn’t a specific memory that is reactivated, like a flashbulb moment of trauma,” he says. “It’s more a global heartbreak.”

Because xenon isn’t specific to blocking the negative connections to the brain’s emotional nexus, Kaufman says it’s possible the gas could also be helpful in reducing the highs and the reward sensation associated with addiction. More studies will need to show that xenon could play a role in those situations as well, but both he and Meloni are optimistic. “We’ve got a good start in animals, and as we work through the ladder in getting it to people, I’m hopeful,” says Meloni.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Here’s What Soda Does to Young Rats’ Brains

Soda is on the mind. A new small study in rats found that drinking sugary beverages may result in memory issues down the line.

University of Southern California researchers looked at adult and adolescent rats, and feed them sugary beverages (meant to mimic soda) for a month. After a month, the rats completed tasks that assessed their cognitive function and memory. The adult rats had no problems, but the adolescent rats who had been drinking sugary beverages had impaired memory and trouble learning.

The findings are being presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), and are preliminary. The researchers plan to explore whether the soda is causing inflammation in the brain’s hippocampus, which is the region of the brain involved in memory and learning.

Though the research has not been done in humans, it’s part of a growing body of work looking at the risks of soda.

TIME psychology

4 Easy Ways You Can Resolve Life’s Toughest Questions

How To Work More Efficiently

Use the Eisenhower Matrix.

decision-book

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

The US President Dwight D. Eisenhower supposedly once said: ‘The most urgent decisions are rarely the most important ones’. Eisenhower was considered a master of time management, i.e. he had the ability to do everything as and when it needed to be done. With the Eisenhower method, you will learn to distinguish between what is important and what is urgent.

Whatever the job that lands on your desk, begin by breaking it down according to the Eisenhower method (see model), and then decide how to proceed. We often focus too strongly on the ‘urgent and important’ field, on the things that have to be dealt with immediately. Ask yourself: When will I deal with the things that are important, but not urgent? When will I take the time to deal with important tasks before they become urgent? This is the field for strategic, long-term decisions.

 

How To Be Happy

Try the “Flow” model.

decision-book

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

After interviewing over a thousand people about what made them happy, (Csikszentmihalyi) found that all the responses had five things in common. Happiness, or ‘flow’, occurs when we are:

• intensely focused on an activity

• of our own choosing, that is

• neither under-challenging (boreout) nor over-challenging (burnout), that has

• a clear objective, and that receives

• immediate feedback.

Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people who are ‘in the flow’ not only feel a profound sense of satisfaction, they also lose track of time and forget themselves completely because they are so immersed in what they are doing. Musicians, athletes, actors, doctors and artists describe how they are happiest when they are absorbed in an often exhausting activity – totally contradicting the commonly held view that happiness has to do with relaxation.

 

How To Remember Everything You Have Ever Learned

Use the Supermemo model.

decision-book

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

Imagine that you are learning Chinese. You have learned a word and memorised it. Without practice, over time it will become increasingly difficult to remember. The amount of time it takes for you to forget it completely can be calculated, and ideally you should be reminded of the word precisely when you are in the process of forgetting it. The more often you are reminded of the word, the longer you will remember it for. This learning programme is called SuperMemo and was developed by the Polish researcher Piotr Woźniak.

After learning something, you should ideally refresh your memory of it at the following intervals: one, ten, thirty and sixty days afterwards.

 

How To Deal With A Dilemma

Use “The Rubber Band Model.”

decision-book

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

Is this a situation you are familiar with? A friend, colleague or client needs to make a decision that could irrevocably alter their future: for example to change career, move to another city or take early retirement. The arguments for and against are evenly balanced. How can you help them out of their dilemma?

Copy out the rubber band model, and ask the person to ask themselves: What is holding me? What is pulling me?

At first glance the method seems to be a simple variation of the conventional question ‘What are the pros and cons?’ The difference is that ‘What is holding me?’ and ‘What is pulling me?’ are positive questions and reflect a situation with two attractive alternatives.

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TIME

Sleep Helps You Remember Things If You’re a Mouse

That’s the technique that worked best for mice in an intriguing study on how sleep helps the brain to create and store memories

It’s hard to tell how much a mouse remembers, but by peering at the activity of nerve cells in animals’ brains while they sleep, researchers have found some clues. That’s how Wen-Biao Gan, a neuroscientist and physiologist at New York University, learned some interesting things about what happens when mice snooze.

By tagging nerves cells in their brains, Gan and his colleagues report in the journal Science that sleep is actually a very active time for the brain, in which connections between buzzing nerve cells are made in order to consolidate memories. The researchers had mice run on a rotating and accelerating rod, then allowed them to sleep. Some of the mice got to slumber undisturbed, while others were handled to keep them from getting quality sleep. The animals who slept undisturbed showed signs of new neural connections forming during just the first phases of sleep, known as non REM sleep.

“My feeling is that sleep is important to the process of forming long term memory,” says Gan. During REM, not only are the same nerve connections that the mice made while they ran reactivated, but new connections were also made. When he blocked the reactivation of nerves, no new connections were made, suggesting that learning, or making long term memories, is a two part process in which sleep plays an important role.

How applicable are these findings to helping people? Hopefully some of same principles apply, says Gan, although more studies will be needed to confirm that. So don’t underestimate how much work your brain is doing while you catch some z’s. Most of what you remember could be thanks to getting a good night’s sleep.

TIME psychology

How to Develop a Photographic Memory: 4 Easy Steps

Could you memorize the order of a deck of cards in under 30 seconds?

(Hat tip to Josh.)

Don’t feel bad; I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday.

In fact, one-third of British people under 30 can’t remember their home phone number.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

According to a survey conducted in 2007 by a neuropsychologist at Trinity College Dublin, fully a third of Brits under the age of thirty can’t remember even their own home land line number without pulling it up on their handsets. The same survey found that 30 percent of adults can’t remember the birthdays of more than three immediate family members.

The thing is, while some people are blessed with a naturally impressive memory, the true memory experts are made, not born.

How do you dramatically improve your memory? C’mon, we’re gonna build a palace.

The Memory Palace

The idea dates back to the fifth century B.C. and was first synthesized in Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium.

So what does a palace have to do with remembering your shopping list?

Your memory is not just a hard drive that stores everything equally well. It’s particularly good at certain things and terrible at others.

Work with it, you’ll be impressed. Work against it and you’ll be wandering the supermarket aisles for that one thing that’s on the tip of your tongue…

Our ancestors didn’t need to remember long lists, they needed to remember routes to resources.

Memory champion Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, penned a piece for the New York Times explaining:

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. Those are the sorts of vital memory skills that they depended on, which probably helps explain why we are comparatively good at remembering visually and spatially.

While we’re terrible about remembering lists of random numbers, the human mind is naturally excellent at remembering places.

What memory experts do is work with the brain’s natural setup to turn hard-to-remember things and fit them into a format that is easy to remember:

The point of the memory techniques described in “Rhetorica ad Herennium.” is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.

So what do you need to know about the fundamentals of memory to get cooking?

  • We’re really good at remembering layouts, routes and spatial information.
  • Our minds are visual.
  • We remember things that stand out; things that are absurd, funny, sexual or offensive.

Here’s how you combine these principles to remember anything:

1) Build Your Palace

It doesn’t need to be very royal. Basically it can be any building you know the layout of. A good starter palace is your childhood home.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

The crucial thing was to choose a memory palace with which I was intimately familiar. “For your first memory palace, I’d like you to use the house you grew up in, since that’s a space you’re likely to know very well,” Ed said.

2) Construct The Images

The things you want to remember (like the items on a grocery list) need to each be associated with an image you won’t forget.

What type of images do we not forget? Extreme things that stand out. Go for crazy, lewd or funny.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

The Ad Herennium advises readers at length about creating the images for one’s memory palace: the funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous… Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex—and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.

3) Place the Images In The Palace

So how do you remember your shopping list?

Think about how you would normally walk through your childhood home and “place” the memorable images in the order you need to remember them along that route.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

“We’re going to array the items of my to-do list one by one along a route that will snake around your childhood home. When it comes time to recall the list, all you will need to do is retrace the steps we’re about to take in your imagination…”

So, for example:

  • You go in through the front door and standing there is a cow on fire (symbolizing the burgers you need to buy at the store).
  • You go up the stairs but they’re slick with the fiery cow’s dripping blood (you need to buy ketchup too.)
  • At the end of the upstairs hall is an enormous human butt (you need to buy hamburger buns.)

Did hearing any of these images make you say “gross” or “disgusting”? GOOD. That means they’re working.

4) Go For A Walk To Recall

Time to remember? Just take a stroll through your palace, visiting each crazy image.

You can use this system for most any memory activity. Cicero used it for speeches, connecting the points he wanted to make as items in his palace.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, by employing memoria rerum. In his De Oratore, he suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a vestige from the art of memory.)

Yes, your mind is going to be full of dinosaurs, naked people and a level of absurdity that would make Salvador Dali cringe.

Who knew developing your memory could be so much fun?

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TIME China

The Invisible, but Not Forgotten Anniversary of Tiananmen Square

The 1989 Choice: China’s Paradox of Seeking Democracy and Wealth
A lone demonstrator stands down a column of tanks June 5, 1989, at the entrance to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The incident took place on the morning after Chinese troops fired on pro-democracy students who had been protesting in the square since April 15, 1989 CNN—Getty Images

As the 25th anniversary of the crackdown approaches, the Chinese Communist Party is pressuring its citizens to forget that heady push for democracy — but some are boldly struggling to keep the memory alive

They wanted him to disappear. In the early hours of May 6, Chinese authorities took away Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Chinese human-rights lawyer who survived the June 4, 1989, crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. Just days before, Pu had attended a private panel discussion on the upcoming 25th anniversary of the massacre, posing for a photograph that was posted online. Five attendees, including Pu, were later arrested.

Pu’s detention did not go unnoticed. Even as China’s censors scrambled to block searches for his name, people started talking about him online, often using coded language to get around the Great Firewall. Last Tuesday, Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (the star of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha) urged her fans to watch The Attorney, a South Korean film about a human-rights lawyer who, per Zhang, “pursues democracy, rule of law, and justice.” Netizens knew exactly what she meant; the post went viral.

With less than three weeks to go before the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the ruling Chinese Communist Party is trying very hard to stay on message. For the most part, that means not talking about, or marking, the events of that restless spring. The nationwide protests that swept China that year were brutally crushed by the party and its military arm, the People’s Liberation Army, with hundreds killed. Much of what unfolded was broadcast worldwide on television, reported and photographed. But within China, information about the incident has been scrubbed from the public sphere.

“The Beijing regime has been remarkably, if temporarily, successful in enforcing its official account of 1989 within China, justifying the military crackdown as necessary for stability and prosperity and for countering a Western conspiracy to divide and weaken China,” writes Rowena Xiaoqing He, who teaches a class on Tiananmen at Harvard University, in her new book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.

Sticking to the script means that in the run-up to the anniversary each year, those who speak up are often arrested. In addition to Pu and his friends, several others have been targeted this year, including Gao Yu, 70, a protester who went on to become one of China’s most respected independent journalists. Last week she was forced to confess — on television — to charges that she leaked state secrets. On Friday, Chen Guang, a soldier turned artist whose work touches on Tiananmen and its aftermath, was also detained.

This official amnesia is an affront for those who participated in the protests, or lost loved ones in the crackdown. In 2006, Pu wrote movingly in the New York Review of Books about his annual visit to the square to honor fallen friends. “If everyone forgets, are we not opening the door to future massacres?” he asked.

The May 3 panel was perhaps an effort to stop this from happening. In a statement released to journalists and published online, the participants said they gathered to “investigate the truth of the incident” and “restore accuracy to history.” It was only by facing up to what happened, they said, that the country might start “closing its wounds.”

Healing is a long way off, but online, at least, a clandestine conversation is under way. After posts with the term Pu Zhiqiang started getting censored, Chinese Internet users started posting Pu’s photograph. When the pictures were pulled, one person responded by posting a portrait-shaped space white space. “Even though your face has been blocked,” wrote the poster, “everyone knows who is in this image.”

TIME Big Picture

Who Needs a Memory When We Have Google?

Brain
Getty Images

I have a confession to make: I’m an infomaniac.

In high school, I was on the debate team and got an early taste of what it’s like to dig deep into information so that I could support my debate arguments. Ever since, I have been hooked on gathering and consuming information as part of my lifestyle. I still get a morning paper delivered to my house and I start my day by checking up on the local news. When I get to the office, I log on to all types of general news and tech sites to catch up on what I missed overnight. Curiosity is in my DNA and my type-A personality drives me to be addicted to information. In my line of work, this is good, but I admit that I overachieve in this area and it sometimes becomes overwhelming.

For most of my early life, this was a manageable problem. In those days, I had newspapers, magazines and a set time to watch the network news every night at 6:00 PM. But from the beginning of the information age and especially with the advent of the Internet, the amount of information sources at my fingertips grew exponentially. I admit that, more often than not, I now have information overload. To put it another way, I have way too many tabs open in my brain at any given time.

It’s almost impossible to keep some that info straight or, even worse, remember most of it. That’s where Google and search engines come in. While I was at the TED conference recently, I talked with a lot of people from various industries. We often compared notes on things we were doing, people we know and items or events that we have been involved in over the years. What’s interesting is that the common denominator in many of these discussions is that when we got stumped on a person’s name, event or item we were talking about, instead of fretting about it, we all took out our smartphones and Googled for the answer. We almost always found what we were looking for, and the conversation continued only slightly interrupted.

In all honesty, that scene happens for me whether with business associates, friends or family. I clearly can’t remember all of the information I take in, so I now rely pretty heavily on Google and other search engines to either find the information I need at any given time or to jog my memory about the topic at hand.

I am sure that this has happened to a lot of people. The role technology plays as an extension of our memory banks has become quite important to us. I have found that when I’m digesting information now, many times I don’t even read the full stories — mostly just the headlines or a quick summary, knowing that if I ever have to recall it, I can just Google it.

In 2008 the Atlantic had a great article by Nicholas Carr titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” In this excerpt from this article, Carr says:

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I am not sure his premise that Google makes us stupid is exactly correct. In fact, I would argue that because of a search engine’s ability to help us quickly find the information we need, it’s actually making us smarter, to a degree. But what Google seems to be doing to me — and perhaps many others — is making our minds lazy. Many times, I may be told something without really concentrating on what is being said, knowing full well that as long as I get the bullet points straight, I can always go back and look up the info.

At first I wanted to chalk some of these memory lapses up to getting older. It’s just part of aging, right? But the more I read about aging, the more I realize that some of this is happening because we are not exercising our brains as much as we should be. More and more often, we’re relying on Google to be a fallback. We concentrate less on what’s in front of us, leaning on Google for anything we can’t remember.

A while back, my wife bought me a Nintendo handheld game system that included a game called Brain Age. It was my first foray into digital brain games, and I found that the more I used it, the more it helped me fine-tune my brain to be much more cognizant of what I was reading and observing. This game came out before everyone had smartphones, and now we have dozens of brain training tools such as my favorite, Lumosity, or Condura, another brain training app.

There are a lot of studies that talk about the Internet’s impact on memory. One that was highlighted in the New York Times in 2011 shared some specific research about this issue. In the article, Patricia Cohen wrote the following:

The widespread use of search engines and online databases has affected the way people remember information, researchers are reporting.

The scientists, led by Betsy Sparrow, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia, wondered whether people were more likely to remember information that could be easily retrieved from a computer, just as students are more likely to recall facts they believe will be on a test.

Dr. Sparrow and her collaborators, Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, staged four different memory experiments. In one, participants typed 40 bits of trivia — for example, “an ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain” — into a computer. Half of the subjects believed the information would be saved in the computer; the other half believed the items they typed would be erased.

The subjects were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later. “Participants did not make the effort to remember when they thought they could later look up the trivia statement they had read,” the authors write.

Whether our brains have become lazy or not, the Internet has clearly impacted the way we read and digest information, and as stated in the Times’ article, search engines have now become just a part of our memory processes. Search engines are very valuable, but if they become crutches that dull our thinking and make our brains lazy, then I believe people will need to use things like Lumosity and other brain-tuning games to help them stay sharp.

Information overload makes it impossible for many of us to keep up with the constant stream of information that’s available. Because many of us try to consume so much information, most of us are forced to mostly skim highlights and summaries just to keep up. However, I believe we can’t let search engines impact our memory. At least in my case ,I don’t want that to happen, so I’m using these brain games to help me deal with this challenge.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every week on TIME Tech.

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