Remember the days of floppy disks? Probably not fondly thanks to the advent of the glorious flash drive. Info is easily stored and just as easily accessed at any time, from anywhere. If only it were so easy to remember the name of that guy in that movie that you liked so much from last year.
What if you could get a sort of flash drive for your brain, designed to help improve your memory capabilities? Biomedical engineering may have the answer for you.
A group led by Dr. Theodore Berger of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has created a microchip for the brain that, in rats, duplicates the neural signals associated with memory. This device, which works to reconnect damaged circuits in the brain, is detailed in their article in the June issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering.
The goal of the researchers in this study is the same as many working in neuroscience: find a way to replace or repair non-functioning connections in the brain to aid those with Alzheimer’s, stroke damage or trauma from other injuries. Our brains are essentially a series of electrical circuits created between neural cells, and as with any electrical system, a bad connections weakens the whole system. The idea, then, was to create a neural prosthetic chip that could be used to restore those bad connections.
In this study, the scientists worked with rats that had been trained in a simple task that yielded a treat. Over time, they developed long-term memories of the act necessary to earn those treats. In observations of this training, the researchers were able to learn what particular circuits in the brain were important for the creation of these long-term memories. The rats were then given a drug to ablate the function of those circuits, causing the rats to “forget” the memories from their training.
But no worries! Enter the prosthetic chip, designed to work in place of the disrupted circuits. After implanting the chip into the rats’ brains and activating its electrical system, they found that they were able to renew the connection between those circuits. Suddenly, the “forgetful” rats remembered their training – literally, with the flip of a switch! Call it an electrical patch, call it a memory chip – but whatever you call it, it does appear to restore neural circuit activity.
The paper goes on to explain that by building upon our knowledge of how memories are coded in the brain, it’s possible to create artificial devices capable of manipulating and even enhancing this coding process. Apparently, not only can we fix connections to store memories, we can improve upon or create new ones. Imagine getting one of these brain chips put in place before an SAT study course to improve your fact retention. Or getting one pre-loaded with memories of the Italian language right before your trip to Venice. Sound awesome? Sound a little terrifying?
More importantly though, at least for now, is the potential benefit to patients who need this sort of thing. Pending follow-up testing of this and similar devices in primates and eventual clinical trials, those with impaired brain function due to disease or injury may have renewed hope.
Thanks & Gig ‘Em.