Finding a way to upgrade the human brain using synthetic components has long been a dream of scientists and researchers, but for the first time, scientists have succeeded in creating a synthetic device that enhances the human brain. Researchers at the University of Southern California have managed to engineer an electrode-based device capable of boosting human memory functions by approximately 25%.
Previous research into memory-enhancing technology has shown that inserting electrodes into the brains of animals can assist their memory, enabling them to recall things better. Spurred on by this research, the team from USC set out to discover whether or not the same was true for humans.
“The human brain had a vast memory storage. It made us curious and very creative. Those were the characteristics that gave us an advantage – curiosity, creativity and memory. And that brain did something very special. It invented an idea called ‘the future.'” — David Suzuki
The USC team wanted to find out if stimulating parts of the human brain involved in memory with electrical impulses could improve memory recall. The researchers approached epileptic patients scheduled to receive a therapeutic brain implant and asked them if they would agree to have similar electrodes implanted into the memory regions of their brains during the same operation. Some 20% of the patients agreed to have the electrodes implanted.
The goal of the experiment was to measure how the implanted electrodes could impact two different kinds of memory: working memory and short-term memory. Working memory refers to memories pertaining to an event that is currently happening, while short-term memory refers to events that just recently occurred.
The experimenters began by implanting the electrodes and then using the electrodes to monitor and record the electrical activity in the brains of their volunteers. The focus was on the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is critical for memory and learning. In dementia and related conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus is found to shrink, which leads to the impaired memory associated with these debilitating conditions.
Looking For Signals
The researchers monitored the activity that took place while their volunteers were engaged in a variety of different memory exercises. The researchers then conducted a short training session to ensure the system was calibrated correctly, and as a result, they were able to correctly predict which areas of the brain would light up when the subjects performed a new memory task. Afterward, the researchers would attempt to mimic the signals that they just recorded and stimulate the implanted electrodes with small bursts of electricity.
The test subjects were asked to recall a series of images while under the influence of the memory-boosting implants. In the short-term memory task, the subjects tried to keep track of strange blob-like shapes that had been shown around 5 to 10 seconds beforehand.
“The human brain is like a memory system that records every single thing that happens to us and makes intelligent predictions based on those predictions.” — Daniel Tammet
The study found that the device is capable of boosting a subject’s ability by up to 25-30%. The implant enhanced short-term memory recall by an average of 15% in the volunteers while improving working memory by approximately 25% in the volunteers. These success rates are similar to those found in animal tests. The researchers noted that when the brain was stimulated randomly, performance dropped instead.
Dong Song is the associate professor of biomedical engineering at USC, and he was on the USC research team during the experiment. Song just recently presented the research to members of the Society for Neuroscience. Song is excited about the results of the experiment.
“We are writing the neural code to enhance memory function. This has never been done before,” says Song.
What Are The Applications?
The authors write in an abstract that the study has managed to accelerate the creation of a prosthetic device capable of “successful memory facilitation in humans”. Much like the implants in the brains of epileptic patients, the new memory-enhancing prosthetics have a variety of therapeutic applications for memory disorders. It is possible for instance, that researchers might be able to stimulate the brain of a person with a memory disorder based on the patterns that occur in a normal brain. This could help restore memory functionality to people with Alzheimer’s or similar diseases.
It also seems probable that the results of the experiment have applications for the development of memory-enhancing prosthetics.
“Cognitive task performance on MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) stimulated trials was compared with non-stimulated and random pattern stimulated trials,” say the researchers. ”MIMO stimulation resulted in a 15-25% improvement in DMS task performance in five patients, demonstrating successful implementation of a new neural prosthetic system for the restoration of damaged human memory.”
Looking to the Future
Advancements in brain-based prosthetics and enhancements have rapidly advanced over the last few decades. Some people, like Bryan Johnson, believe that before the next 15 years are up humans will have the ability to greatly enhance their brain’s natural capacities. Johnson has created his own brain-augmentation based startup called Kernel, investing almost $100 million into the development of brain augmentation prosthetics. Kernel’s current focus is on developing technology to treat neurological diseases, but the applications of that technology will no doubt go far beyond just repairing damaged brains.
As with any new technology, there will be upsides and downsides to the creation of brain augmenting prosthetics. Human augmentation technologies have the ability to improve lives all around the globe, but some scientists and ethicists are worried about the drawbacks the creation of such technology may bring about.
“Many think of memory as rote learning, a linear stuffing of the brain with facts, where understanding is irrelevant. When you teach it properly, with imagination and association, understanding becomes a part of it.” — Tony Buzan
Recently, a team of researchers led by neuroscientist Rafael Yuste and bioethicist Sara Goering called for the creation of a system of oversight and ethical guidelines concerning software or hardware used to enhance human abilities. The team voiced their concerns about possible losses of privacy and autonomy, the potential for malicious hacking by criminals, and the unequal distribution of these technologies that might exacerbate inequality. Goering and Yuste acknowledge the positive sides of the technology, so they aren’t calling for bans, just regulation.
Yuste, the director of the Neurotechnology Center at Colombia University and part of the Data Science Institute, says they just want to try and maximize the benefits while minimizing the harms.
“We just want to ensure that this new technology which is so exciting, and which could revolutionize our lives, is used for the good of humankind,” said Yuste.