Human memory? There could be an app for that.

August 26, 2011

You know that scene in The Matrix when Trinity says, "Tank, I need a pilot program for a B-212 helicopter. Hurry!" And then Tank downloads a program into her brain and suddenly, voila, she can fly the thing? Crazy with a capital C or maybe not so Crazy? Yup. We’re talking brain implants today.

 

In June, 2011, The Journal of Neural Engineering published an article that NPR's Tom Ashbrook calls "the first clear demonstration of a brain implant improving cognition." Ashbrook hosted a forty five minute On Point discussing the groundbreaking findings with science reporter Benedict Carey, lead author in the study Theodore Berger, and neuroscientist David Eagleman.

 

Here's what Berger and his team at Wake Forest and University of Southern California did….

 

First, they inserted an array of electrodes into two areas of the hippocampus (called CA1 and CA3) of the lab rats. These two sections are known to communicate with each other when new memories are being formed. The arrays were then connected by tiny wires to a computer.

 

Next, the rats were taught a simple task (pressing one of two levers to get a drink of water). As the rats memorized the task, the "neuroconversation" between the two sections of the hippocampus was recorded. This conversation is basically a "firing pattern" of neurons. (As Carey says, think of these neurons like a string of blinking lights.)

 

Finally, when researchers used a drug to block activity in CA1, the rats were unable to perform the task, but when they played back the recorded neuroconversation, the rats remembered. The implanted device thus took the place of CA1.

 

What this means, though, is that memory has to be recorded first in order for it to be replayed. And, we're talking rats attached to a computer here, so we're not exactly ready for humans yet, but, still, what a start. Down the road, the hope is that with much more complexity, and with the wonders of wireless, such "neural prosthetics" will be able to improve cognitive function after traumatic brain injury as well as be able to help those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's.

 

Of course, plenty of Ashbrook's callers had concerns about the technology being misused. Sad that a few evil dystopian despots could ruin things for the rest of us.

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