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Brain Implant: Microchip Could Restore Memory

microchip brain implant memory
Brain implants now are estimated to be installed in 80,000 people for treating epilepsy and Parkinson's disease. Researchers predict that the first memory restoration implants in humans could happen in the next two years. Stanford University

Brain implants in the form of microchips may be able to restore memory in the not-so-distant future, researchers say.

Researchers predict that the first memory restoration implants in humans could happen in the next two years, with wider availability within five to 10 years, reports CNN.

"I never thought I'd see this in my lifetime," said Ted Berger, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "I might not benefit from it myself but my kids will."

The new approach, which MIT is calling one of the top 10 technological breakthroughs of 2013, focuses on the activity of the hippocampus, the part of the cerebral cortex where short-term memories become long-term ones.

When a memory is created in an undamaged part of the brain, the brain cells in that area give certain electric signals. Scientists can use mathematical modeling to predict what other parts of the brain should be signaling as well, but do not signal because of damage. Scientists then use electrodes to stimulate those areas, mimicking the activity of undamaged cells in the damaged area.

The effect is to recreate the brain activity associated with the memory, as performed by an undamaged brain.

"We support and reinforce the signal in the hippocampus but we are moving forward with the idea that if you can study enough of the inputs and outputs to replace the function of the hippocampus, you can bypass the hippocampus," said Rob Hampson, associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University, which did many of the animal studies.

Brain implants now are estimated to be installed in 80,000 people. For the last 15 years, implants have been used to treat epilepsy and Parkinson's disease.

"It's now commonly accepted that humans will have electrodes put in them-- it's done for epilepsy, deep brain stimulation, [and that has made it] easier for investigative research. It's much more acceptable now than five to 10 years ago," said Hampson.

The key to achieving widespread use for the memory implant will be making them small enough to be practical, researchers said.

"Right now it's not a device, it's a fair amount of equipment," Hampson said. "We're probably looking at devices in the five to 10 year range for human patients."

Berger predicts a future for memory recovery where drugs are used to enhance the action of cells that surround the damaged parts of the brain, and memory implants replace lost cells in the center of the damaged area.

The ultimate goal is to treat Alzheimer's disease, a difficult proposition because the disease affects so many parts of the brain in concert, making it harder to treat as compared to stroke or localized injury.

The memory implant likely will be ineffective for fighting advanced dementia, which entails significant memory loss, the team said.

The team's optimism has been met with some skepticism from other scientists.

"The brain has a lot of redundancy, it can function pretty well if it loses one or two parts. But memory involves circuits diffusely dispersed throughout the brain so it's hard to envision," said Constantine Lyketsos, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at John Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

The UK's Alzheimer's Society also weighed in on the study's findings.

"Finding ways to combat symptoms caused by changes in the brain is an ongoing battle for researchers. An implant like this one is an interesting avenue to explore," said Doug Brown, director of research and development.

Describing the new approach, Hampson said, "[It is] like the difference between a cane, to help you walk, and a prosthetic limb -- it's two different approaches."

The project is funded in part by the U.S. military, which is hoping the findings may someday help with battlefield injuries.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is asking "what can you do for my boys?" Hampson said. "That's what it's all about."

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