Electronic Implant for Memory

Electronic Implant for Memory

Electronic Implant for Memory

Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, envisions a day in the not too distant future when a patient with severe memory loss can get help from an electronic implant.  In people whose brains have suffered damage from Alzheimer’s, stroke, or injury, disrupted neuronal networks often prevent long-term memories from forming.

Berger has designed silicon chips to mimic the signal processing that those neurons do when they’re functioning properly—the work that allows us to recall experiences and knowledge for more than a minute.  Ultimately, Berger wants to restore the ability to create long-term memories by implanting chips like these in the brain.

Berger and his research partners have yet to conduct human tests of their neural prostheses, but their experiments show how a silicon chip externally connected to rat and monkey brains by electrodes can process information just like actual neurons.  “We’re not putting individual memories back into the brain,” he says.  “We’re putting in the capacity to generate memories.”

“The hippocampus makes short-term memories into long-term memories.”

Berger began working with Vasilis ­Marmarelis, a biomedical engineer at USC, to begin making a brain prosthesis.  They first worked with hippocampal slices from rats.  Knowing that neuronal signals move from one end of the hippocampus to the other, the researchers sent random pulses into the hippocampus, recorded the signals at various locales to see how they were transformed, and then derived mathematical equations describing the transformations.  They implemented those equations in computer chips.

Next, to assess whether such a chip could serve as a prosthesis for a damage hippocampal region, the researchers investigated whether they could bypass a central component of the pathway in the brain slices.  Electrodes placed in the region carried electrical pulses to an external chip, which performed the transformations normally done in the hippocampus.  Other electrodes delivered the signals back to the slice of brain.

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