A brain implant able to restore memories lost to injury seems like something out of a sci-fi blockbuster, but it may soon be a reality. Researchers from the U.S. military have begun to reveal developments for a technology with "mind manipulation" abilities. The technology, however, is still being developed, and the identity of the person first in line for clinical trials on humans has not been announced. Although there is a fair bit of anticipation for its unveiling, the brain implant device also raises ethical concerns over whether or not one should toy with the human mind.
For the past four years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been building a memory stimulator. It’s similar to a pacemaker and sends electrical pulses into the brain. AFP reports that so far this device has only been tested on rodents and monkeys.
In its trials, researchers were able to extend animals’ short-term memory by using the device to stimulate the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with memory. Researchers found they were able to get a drugged monkey to perform close to normal in memory tasks. They then used the device to confuse the monkeys on what they remembered and successfully manipulated them into choosing the opposite.
Restoration of Memory Functions
“Memory is patterns and connections. For us to come up with a memory prosthetic, we would actually have to have something that delivers specific patterns,” Robert Hampson, an associate professor at Wake Forest University told AFP. Hampton then explained that in order to restore a human’s specific memory, scientists would have to know the precise pattern for the memory.
Scientists believe that rather than restoring a specific memory, they can improve overall memory by helping the brain return to its performance level from before the injury. By restoring the brain back to functional or near-functional operating capacity, the individuals can access their formed memories and form new memories as well.
OK, it’s possible, but is it ethical?
Although the technology is accessible, some experts question whether or not it is ethical to manipulate an individual’s mind? “When you fool around with the brain, you are fooling around with personal identity. The cost of altering the mind is you risk losing sense of self, and that is a new kind of risk we never faced,” Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, explained to AFP.
There are also concerns that such technology would be able to erase memories or implant memories known to create “inception-like” consequences. Soldiers wouldn’t have to live with the memories of their actions and may be tempted to consider things they wouldn’t have before. They could also become more violent and less conscientious, and even thwart investigations into war crimes, Caplan warned. “If I could take a pill or put a helmet on and have some memories wiped out, maybe I don’t have to live with the consequences of what I do,” he said.
DARPA insists that there will always be ethical questions when new technology is developed. Still, the organization plans to push forward with the project and urges the public to stay tuned for more formal announcements to come in the next few months.