Memory-boosting brain prosthesis shows impressive results in human trials
A DARPA-funded study has raised the possibility of memory-enhancing brain prostheses. Following animal research that had returned successful results, the new study was conducted on patients at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center who already had brain implants as part of epilepsy treatment, and they experienced marked improvements to both short- and long-term memory.
The patients were asked to play a series of memory-related computer games, and as they were trying to remember things, the researchers recorded patterns of neural firing around the hippocampus area, which is responsible for memory. They paid particular attention to neural patterns that resulted in the correct memory being encoded.
They then had the patients play the games again, and electrically stimulated each patient's brain using his or her own successful memory encoding patterns. Effectively, the hope was to use those electrical stimulations to trigger more effective memory storage of the material at hand.
And it worked, even better than the team was expecting. Results on the short-term memory tests jumped by a huge 37 percent, and on the long-term memory tests (remembering things from up to 75 minutes prior) by 35 percent.
"We showed that we could tap into a patient's own memory content, reinforce it and feed it back to the patient," says Robert Hampson, Ph.D., the lead author of the study. "Even when a person's memory is impaired, it is possible to identify the neural firing patterns that indicate correct memory formation and separate them from the patterns that are incorrect. We can then feed in the correct patterns to assist the patient's brain in accurately forming new memories, not as a replacement for innate memory function, but as a boost to it."
This research appears to open the door to memory-enhancing brain implants that may someday be able to give you a button you can press when you're looking at something that helps increase your chances of remembering it later – and it's clear how that kind of thing could be an immediate game changer for those willing to take the plunge and get one fitted.
But the research team sees it more as a potential medical device for Alzheimers, stroke or traumatic brain injury patients, helping them re-start the formation of new memories using their brain's own activity patterns. The team is also hoping the technology may one day be able to assist people in keeping hold of memories they've already encoded.
"In the future," says Hampson, "we hope to be able to help people hold onto specific memories, such as where they live or what their grandkids look like, when their overall memory begins to fail."
The paper describing the research appears in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
You can watch some of the process in the video below.