Brain implants that enhance the natural capabilities of humans may seem like science fiction, but with research on brain implants taking place from the US Department of Defence to Elon Musk, it seems only a matter of time before such devices become a reality. Now, for the first time ever, a group of researchers from the University of Southern California have designed and demonstrated a brain implant that can improve human memory, and which may prove to be revolutionary in the treatment of one of the world’s most devastating diseases.
The implant consists of multiple electrodes that mimic how the brain naturally processes memories by giving small electric shocks to regions of the hippocampus – the memory centre of the brain – which strengthen the neural pathways the brain uses to create memories.
The team, led by Dong Song, a research associate professor of biomedical engineering at USC, tested the device on 20 volunteers who were each fitted with the electrodes and shown images in a short presentation, which they were asked to recall up to 75 seconds later. The researchers then analysed the brain activity of the participants to identify the regions that activated while they were using their memory. In a second session, the implants were used to stimulate these brain areas with small electric shocks and the short term memory of the participants was found to increase by about 30%.
While a brain implant that boosts memory would make life easier for students cramming for exams or those of us who have trouble remembering names, it could be profoundly life-changing for people who suffer from long-term-memory loss such as patients with Alzheimer’s. Age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s, with the vast majority of sufferers over the age of 65. And as the elderly population continues to grow in size due to medical and healthcare advances, the problem is positioned to get even worse.
As the number of Alzheimer sufferers increases so too will the financial and emotional costs of the disease. In 2016, the total cost of healthcare and treatment for those with Alzheimer’s was a staggering $236 billion. The effects of Alzheimer’s can also have a severe impact on the mental health of the families of sufferers as looking after someone who increasingly forgets who you are can be heartbreaking.
Although more tests are needed before Song’s implant can be determined to be a legitimate treatment of Alzheimer’s, if it enables patients to regain even part of their lost memory function, this will make a massive difference not only to the individuals suffering from the disease, but also to their families and even, on a larger scale, to the economy.
This article was written by Thomas Rodger and edited by Bonnie Nicholson.