It sounds like something out of science fiction but brain researchers at a number of centers around the country hope to make it science fact. The question they are tasked with answering is whether it is possible to create a device that would help victims of severe brain injury recover one of the most elusive of faculties — the ability to form memories. Behind the inquiry is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — known more commonly as DARPA.
Anyone in Missouri who is a victim of memory-eroding disease or brain trauma — indeed, anyone who has witnessed a loved one so hurt — knows the effects. The victim is far from the only person who suffers. Unfortunately, what options may exist to treat the problem are limited, if they exist at all. And that’s something that DARPA officials say they would like to see changed.
In a bid to make it happen, the agency announced recently that it is distributing some $40 million dollars between facilities at the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Pennsylvania and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. DARPA says the hope is that through they’ll be able to create what’s called a “neuroprosthetic” that can be implanted in trauma victims’ brains to restore memory function.
The anticipated beneficiaries would be the more than 270,000 servicemen and women who have suffered traumatic brain injuries since 2000. The estimated 1.7 million civilians who wind up suffering TBI each year could also be helped.
Making the task particularly challenging is that neuroscientists don’t fully understand how the brain works when forming and recovering memories. What they do know is that the process involves stimulating single neurons narrower than the width of a hair. So the electrode implants required will have to be that small, too. Right now, the smallest deep brain stimulation electrodes in use are 100 times larger than that.
They clearly have their work cut out for them.
Source: KQED Radio, “With DARPA Support, Lawrence Lab Seeks to Develop Brain Implant to Treat Memory Loss,” Liz Roth-Johnson, July 9, 2014
Source: DARPA.mil, “Restoring active memory program poised to launch,” July 9, 2014