'Brain prosthesis' to help to preserve memories

Daily Mail
'Brain prosthesis' to help to preserve memories

Funded by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), several universities and companies are collaborating to create brain implants that help patients with memory loss remember things like here they put their keys, or parked, Daily Mail writes in the article Surgically implanted 'chips' improve memory by up to 37% - but require patients to have clunky device parts strapped to tops of their heads.

A new microchip is giving handful of patients with memory-loss are getting a boost to their recall as scientists work to develop a 'prosthetic' to improve their brain function. 

So far, the clinical trials have only enrolled some 250 patients who already have electrodes implanted along their brains to treat epilepsy - so the devices are a long ways off from being used broadly for dementia patients.  But the results thus far are impressive.  In one Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center study published last year, patients short-term memories were improved by as much as 37 percent, and by 15 and 18 percent, consistently, in two other studies. 

An estimated one in nine Americans over 45 suffers memory loss, and the burden of lethal Alzheimer's on older adults is only growing.  And there isn't much doctors can do about it, yet. 

If Alzheimer's is diagnosed early - although diagnosis is only definitive after death - some medications can help slow the progress of the disease.  But they certainly won't stop it, much less restore memory function. Futuristic-sounding 'brain chips' might, though. 

And to the lead researcher on the Wake Forest trial, that's not just about helping people retain the ability to do things for themselves, but to continue to be themselves.  'Memory is at the heart of who a person is,' says Dr Robert Hampson, in a video interview accompanying the study he and his team published last year in the journal, Neural Development.  'Their personality is intertwined with their memories; their interactions with all other people are intertwined with their memories. Dr Hampson and his team implanted 22 epileptic patients with a memory 'prosthetic' in a trial, according to the study published last year. Several of the devices - which look like slightly thicker, stiffer electrical wire - are implanted into various spots in the hippocampus, a structure toward the core of the brain that is responsible for emotion regulation and  the formation of new memories. 

Their job is to first learn what deficits a patient's memory has, by recording the signals being sent and received in the brain, then to step in and supplement the brain with an extra 'zap' of electrical activity.  It worked.  About half of the patients were implanted just for the recording portion of the trial, but among the eight who underwent testing for memory improvement with the device. Their ability to recall newly-learned information after anywhere from 20 to 75 minutes later improved by about 35 percent, with short-term memory improving by 37 percent. 

But the system isn't exactly an invisible internal chip. The electrodes extend out of the skull, into a series of several-inch-long blocks that sit inelegantly on top of a patient's bandaged head.  

Meanwhile, collaborating researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (U Penn) and the Mayo Clinic - who are also part of the DARPA-funded Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program - are testing a similar technology. Their devices stimulate different brain regions but operates in a similar way.  

Not only are these electrode devices clunky, they require brain surgery to place, so the researchers are only currently comfortable trying them in patients that already have electrodes placed to manage their epilepsy.  But someday, they could help Alzheimer's patients to retain and even form new memories.