Like something out of the Matrix, we're entering an era where it may be possible to boost your memory with a few zaps to the brain.
A few dozen people who were given brain implants that delivered targeted shocks to their mind's memory center scored better on memory tests, DARPA announced at a conference in St. Louis last week.
These implants could someday be used to restore memory to people suffering from traumatic brain injury or other neurological problems, agency representatives said.
"As the technology of these fully implantable devices improves, and as we learn more about how to stimulate the brain ever more precisely to achieve the most therapeutic effects, I believe we are going to gain a critical capacity to help our wounded warriors and others who today suffer from intractable neurological problems," program manager Justin Sanchez said in a statement.
The goal of the study, which is part of DARPA's Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, was to allow scientists to read and interpret the brain activity involved in forming and recalling memories and predict when a person is about to remember something incorrectly. The electrodes can then be used to deliver targeted electrical shocks to specific groups of brain cells that store a memory, making it more easily accessible, according to DARPA.
A team of USC scientists that is not part of the DARPA effort has also been working for several years on developing brain implants to boost and enhance memory in rats and other animals, but this is the first time this kind of technology has been tested in humans.
The people who received the implants volunteered to test them while they were having brain surgery for neurological problems unrelated to memory loss.
During the surgery, scientists implanted small electrode arrays in brain regions involved in forming declarative memories — the kind of memory used to remember events, times, places, or lists of objects — as well as in areas involved in spatial memory and navigation.
In preliminary findings, the researchers were able to not only record and interpret the signals that store memories in the brain and retrieve them later, but also activate memory areas to improve the patients' recall for lists of objects.
Scientists are still figuring out the best way to deliver the stimulation, i.e., when the lists are first being memorized, or when the person is trying to recall the items.
DARPA is withholding some details of the study because they haven't been published in a scientific journal yet.
Other brainy boosts
The RAM program is just one of several efforts aimed at boosting memory or cognition.
While we're nowhere near the ability to download skills into our brains like Neo in the Matrix, another DARPA program launching in October, called RAM Replay, aims to improve people's memory of physical skills, by mimicking the brain's natural process of replaying these skills — something our brains do naturally while we sleep.
Meanwhile, DARPA's Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program is developing implants to provide relief to people suffering from PTSD and other neurological disorders.
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