Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, so the Department of Defense allocated 70 million dollars to develop treatments for this devastating injury that accounts for over 22% of all combat casualties. Some sources say the percentage is as high as 60%.

The symptoms of TBI vary from subtle to severe and include headache; confusion; vertigo; cognitive dysfunction; and short or long term memory loss, many of the symptoms that mimic Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

The research teams from the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University have used the Department of Defense funds to develop a brain implant that noticeably boosts memory. Indeed, it has already shown that it can improve the recall of a list of words in volunteers by 15% and holds promise for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

Neural Implants

Neural implants claiming to increase memory function are nothing new, but this implant actually listens to the brain before responding! It uses deep brain stimulation which requires that multiple electrodes be implanted into the brain to determine high and low functioning rates, instead of previously used non-invasive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

The new technology presents both risks and opportunities. Dr. Michael Kahana, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the senior author of the new study, said the implants could potentially sharpen memory more dramatically if the approach were refined to support memory retrieval — digging out the memory — rather than only storage.

“Now that the technology is out of the box, all sorts of neuro-modulation algorithms could be used in this way,” he added.

This new device is based upon the “closed loop” method which varies tissue stimulation based on feedback coded from neural activity, instead of the previously used “open loop” method where the stimulation wasn’t tweaked for more precise placing of the electrodes. It decodes neural activity and then responds with the appropriate stimulation. In some ways, this new mode of stimulating the brain works much like a pacemaker where sensors “listen” to what’s happening before acting, thereby stimulating the tissue only when it’s necessary. It anticipates the next move and in so doing, improves memory function.

Ideally, the research could be used to help dementia patients by interceding for their failing memory as it degenerates. It also has sound implications for disorders like Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other degenerative neurological conditions.

How does it feel to have your brain poked and prodded in the name of science? “I remember doing the tests, and enjoying it,” study participant David Mabrey told The New York Times. “But I could not honestly tell how the stimulation was affecting my memory. You don’t feel anything; you don’t know whether it’s on or off.”

It’s not easy getting the probes to sit where they’re needed. It’s a delicate operation and therefore, for now, should only be used in the worst-case scenarios after other treatment options have failed to produce results.

But for some people suffering the effects of dementia, this pacemaker for the brain could improve their quality of life and offer them a few more years of improved recall.


Research

1. An Incredible New Type of Brain Implant Can Boost Memory by 15%. Science Alert.com
https://www.sciencealert.com/closed-loop-deep-brain-stimulation-improves-memorisation

2. Alzheimer’s Brain Implant Could Improve Cognitive Function.
http://www.telegraphroadclinic.com.au/2018/02/19/alzheimers-brain-implant-could-improve-cognitive-function/

3. A Brain Implant Improved Memory, Scientists Report. New York Times.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/health/brain-implant-memory.html