“You have to begin to lose your memory, if only bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all.” — Luis Buñuel Portolés, Filmmaker
Every year, hundreds of millions of people experience the pain of a failing memory.
The reasons are many: traumatic brain injury, which haunts a disturbingly high number of veterans and football players; stroke or Alzheimer’s disease, which often plagues the elderly; or even normal brain aging, which inevitably touches us all.
Memory loss seems to be inescapable. But one maverick neuroscientist is working hard on an electronic cure. Funded by DARPA, Dr. Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineer at the University of Southern California, is testing a memory-boosting implant that mimics the kind of signal processing that occurs when neurons are laying down new long-term memories.
The revolutionary implant, already shown to help memory encoding in rats and monkeys, is now being tested in human patients with epilepsy — an exciting first that may blow the field of memory prosthetics wide open.
To get here, however, the team first had to crack the memory code.
A Human Memory Implant
Last year, the team cautiously began testing their memory implant prototype in human volunteers.
Because of the risks associated with brain surgery, the team recruited 12 patients with epilepsy, who already have electrodes implanted into their brain to track down the source of their seizures.
Repeated seizures steadily destroy critical parts of the hippocampus needed for long-term memory formation, explained Berger. So if the implant works, it could benefit these patients as well.
The team asked the volunteers to look through a series of pictures, and then recall which ones they had seen 90 seconds later. As the participants learned, the team recorded the firing patterns in both CA1 and CA3 — that is, the input and output nodes.
Using these data, the team extracted an algorithm — a specific human “memory code” — that could predict the pattern of activity in CA1 cells based on CA3 input. Compared to the brain’s actual firing patterns, the algorithm generated correct predictions roughly 80% of the time.
It’s not perfect, said Berger, but it’s a good start.
Using this algorithm, the researchers have begun to stimulate the output cells with an approximation of the transformed input signal.
We have already used the pattern to zap the brain of one woman with epilepsy, said Dr. Dong Song, an associate professor working with Berger. But he remained coy about the result, only saying that although promising, it’s still too early to tell.
Song’s caution is warranted. Unlike the motor cortex, with its clear structured representation of different body parts, the hippocampus is not organized in any obvious way.
It’s hard to understand why stimulating input locations can lead to predictable results, said Dr. Thoman McHugh, a neuroscientist at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute. It’s also difficult to tell whether such an implant could save the memory of those who suffer from damage to the output node of the hippocampus.
“That said, the data is convincing,” McHugh acknowledged.
Berger, on the other hand, is ecstatic. “I never thought I’d see this go into humans,” he said.
But the work is far from done. Within the next few years, Berger wants to see whether the chip can help build long-term memories in a variety of different situations. After all, the algorithm was based on the team’s recordings of one specific task — what if the so-called memory code is not generalizable, instead varying based on the type of input that it receives?
Berger acknowledges that it’s a possibility, but he remains hopeful.
I do think that we will find a model that’s a pretty good fit for most conditions, he said. After all, the brain is restricted by its own biophysics — there’s only so many ways that electrical signals in the hippocampus can be processed, he said.
“The goal is to improve the quality of life for somebody who has a severe memory deficit,” said Berger. “If I can give them the ability to form new long-term memories for half the conditions that most people live in, I’ll be happy as hell, and so will be most patients.”