One of the more haunting aspects of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Bladerunner” is its treatment of memory. Key characters have had their memories implanted, so that they don’t know whether what they recall of their past is genuine or a manipulated artifact. I’m thinking about this because a recent effort from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency brings up the situation in reverse. What if you lost your memory but could have it restored by an implant?
Scott’s film was science fiction but DARPA’s contracts to the University of Pennsylvania and University of California, Los Angeles are anything but. For four years, researchers at the schools are going to be looking at how we can come up with a prosthetic memory device. That’s right, a memory prosthesis that can be as effective at restoring memories as an artificial leg can be at helping a wounded soldier walk. In fact, the initial DARPA target is to help veterans with brain injuries, of which, says DARPA, there are some 270,000 since the year 2000.
Can such a thing be done? Researchers at what is now being called the Restoring Active Memory program are finding out, buoyed by earlier work, at both Case Western Reserve and the University of Kansas, that has demonstrated memory recall in rats with the use of a microchip connected to electrodes in the brain. The implant manages the disconnection between parts of the injured brain and restores normal operations, so that the animals recover lost behaviors.
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The University of Pennsylvania team hopes to have a workable implant that can improve the memory of patients who have undergone brain surgery for diseases like epilepsy or Parkinson’s within the allotted four years. At UCLA, the work is focusing on the hippocampus, considered the site of memory formation and a key to memory storage. If tiny implantable systems work, we’ll be seeing digital technology vaulting past the pharmaceutical companies, whose efforts at dealing with memory impairment have been extensive but in most cases less than effective.
Not long ago I wrote about a “lifelogging” camera called Memoto, which you can wear dangling from your neck to take automated photos throughout the day. “Lifeloggers,” people obsessed with accurate record-keeping of their activities, would seem to be the only group that would want such a thing, but in fact a camera like this is its own kind of memory prosthesis for those with mild impairment. It’s not an implant, but we do have life-changing implants already within us in the form of pacemakers for hearts and cochlear devices that can restore sound to profoundly deaf people.
Restore and recover
So maybe becoming a culture of cyborgs – people with technology built into them to help with problems or to extend their physical limitations – isn’t such a scary notion after all. The ultimate goal here is not only to restore functioning memory, but also to bring back those memories once thought lost. The prosthesis operates under the assumption that those memories are still there, and that damage to the hippocampus, which can lead to dementia and a variety of memory-damaging diseases, including Alzheimer’s, can be compensated for and even reversed.
It’s a big jump from the current DARPA project to working memory restoration at the Alzheimer’s level, but given the pace of technological change, and weighing this against the stubborn refusal of Alzheimer’s to yield to a drug-based solution, I’d say this work holds out real promise. Initial human testing will involve volunteer epilepsy and neurosurgical patients who already have implanted brain electrodes, allowing scientists to study the processes of memory formation.
We may be en route to learning how technology can route around brain damage much as a computer network does, finding a way to restore the communications that were there before injury, disease or aging took them away. One out of three seniors dies with some form of dementia. If we can reduce that number with high tech, I say bring on the implants.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.