Brain Implant Improves Memory

By Carl Engelking | February 8, 2018 2:03 pm


When it comes to improving memory, being in the right place at the right time could be key. Scientists are figuring out how to do that.

Michael Kahana, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and his team developed an experimental brain stimulation technique that improves memory by applying a pulse of electricity directly to the brain when and where it’s needed most. In an early demonstration, they say their approach improved word recall in epilepsy patients by 15 percent.

It’s the result of decades of research that’s being funded by the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to decode brain signals. Although there’s a lot more work to be done, Kahana and colleagues believe they’re getting closer to developing implantable devices that could help veterans who have experienced brain trauma.

Direct brain stimulation is a standard tool to block symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. There’s also been some work showing it could work to address psychiatric conditions as well. The procedure involves implanting electrodes in specific parts of the brain and applying electricity. For the most part, direct brain stimulation is conducted via an “open-loop” approach where electrical signal remains static regardless of brain activity.

More recent research has explored a “closed-loop” approach where electrodes both monitor brain activity and apply stimulation based on neural feedback. After paving the way for it last year, the closed-loop approach is what Kahana and colleagues used in this current study.

They worked with 25 patients with epilepsy who were preparing for surgery to treat their seizures; therefore, their brains were already wired to monitor their neural activity. For each person, researchers identified the unique patterns of brain activity that indicated when their neural memory storage process was working and when it wasn’t working. That information was fed into a computer algorithm that could predict when a memory lapse was about to occur based on signals from the brain.

Then, the researchers asked patients to memorize and recall lists of nouns. The stimulation was aimed at the lateral temporal cortex—a part of the brain associated with word recall. Some recall tests were performed with the device on, while in others the device was off. And it seemed to work. On average, researchers say participants’ recall performance improved about 15 percent when it was on.

The team published its findings Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

We are still far from time-crunched students turning to memory-boosting brain implants to cram for an exam. Wiring the brain with electrodes is still a delicate, laborious process. However, work is ongoing to someday fit these capabilities onto a device. And if algorithms can predict a memory lapse, the same approach could work to correct other neurological disorders with well-placed and well-timed pulses.

“There’s a good chance that something like this will come available,” Michael Sperling, an author of the study and director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, told NPR. “I would hope within the next half dozen years, or so.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
  • Charles Barnard

    I suspect that further research on the Acr molecule which seems to be key to memory and it’s ability to transfer RNA between neurons will result in major memory advances.

    The other recent memory discovery, that short and long term memories are created simultaneously, but long-term memories fade unless there is traffic between them through the hippocampus should lead to research showing how to improve the long-term process or to interrupt it.

    We know that accessing memory also rewrites it, adding or subtracting things based upon our mood and environment of recall–so our memories are far more fluid than we would like to believe.

    This is so different from the way in which computers store and access data, that I thing that AI’s which act as we do will require software to emulate our flaws…if we are to accept them.

    If anything makes us individuals, it is long-term memory…which seems to largely be the result of our “adopting” an ancient virus into our brains.

    Life is nothing if not promiscuous, and lifeforms often trade functional systems…so far, all life is closely related–enough that genomes and inherited internal systems may be exchanged between species.

    If you didn’t like “evolving” form primates, then how to feel about evolving from infections?

  • Robert Lee

    Photobiomodulation using near-infrared leds or cold lasers would be less invasive and with no side effects also.

    There are already trans-cranial and intra-nasal devices that are on the market for brain wellness.

  • Radiant Holistics

    Very good article. Very informative and makes sense. Very much appreciated. Thanks!


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