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Prosthetic Implants for Memory Loss: If You Can’t Cure them, Augment them

News October 6th, 2015

Researchers have developed a prosthesis to implant in the brain and help convert short-term memories into long-term memories, potentially serving as a means to overcome the memory loss in Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

The concept sounds like something out of science fiction, but it’s very real and has had successful human trials (with people suffering chronic seizures).

This prosthesis builds upon the acclaimed research of Ted Berger and Dong Song and was designed by a research team at USC and tested at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. They take this prosthesis and implant it in the hippocampus of patients to translate signals that would otherwise be lost.

How it Works

The best way to explain what this device does is to use the game of “Telephone” analogy. In Telephone, people form a line, and one person whispers a message into the adjacent person’s ear. They then proceed to relay the message down the line until the final recipient gets the message and says it aloud. Children play this game to humorous results, but this is an accurate portrayal of how our memories are read and stored.

Essentially, our brains create memories that operate like electrical signals. Then everywhere our memory travels, it’s interpreted and re-encoded until it reaches its destination. Through this process, if the stops our memory makes in the hippocampus are damaged (say, due to Alzheimer’s Disease), then the final destination may not translated as “long-term” but something else entirely.

As an aside, this is why elders who suffer dementia can often recall old memories, but cannot form new ones; their old memories were already translated into long term.

What the prosthesis does is bypass any damages in the hippocampus and provide a working, undamaged stop for the memory to be re-encoded and moved on. They started testing on animals with accurate results. Then, with the permission of the patients, they implanted the prosthesis into their brains and found that they translated and re-encoded with 90% accuracy.

What this means for Alzheimer’s Research

Alzheimer’s Disease currently affects 5 million Americans, that means 1 in every 9 people aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s. It’s a deadly disease that’s only going to affect more and more people. What this research does is provide a loophole.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease yet. Researchers are hard at work trying to figure out what causes it, how to prevent it, and how to reverse it, but this research is very different. What the DARPA-funded project has shown is that we may not need to cure it, just adapt faster than the disease. It’s the classic, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” only in this case, they’re augmenting the problem.

It’s a brilliant approach and hopefully we can see some testing on dementia elders soon to see how the prosthetic fairs.

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