The Future is Here: Memory Prosthetics

Restoring Active Memory (Shutterstock)Developing implants that can restore damaged neural tissue – either by restoring the connections between damaged memory synapses or restoring cognitive function – is seen as the next great leap in prosthetic medicine. In recent years, steps have been taken in both areas, offering patients and willing subjects the option of restoring or hacking their neurology.

For example, last year, researchers working at the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania successfully managed to design and implement a brain implant that acted as a bypass for damaged brain tissue. This neural prosthesis successfully restored brain function in rats, demonstrating that the closed-loop brain-machine-brain interface could one day perform the same function in brain-damaged humans.

brain-darpa-617x416And as with many such projects, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) soon became involved, taking up the reins to fund the research and development of the technology. As part of the DARPA Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, the device is currently being developed with the hope of restoring memory function in veterans who have suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Currently, over 270,000 military service members since 2000 and an estimated 1.7 million civilians in the US are affected by TBI, which often manifests as an inability to retrieve memories formed before being injured and an impaired ability to form new memories. Currently, there are also no effective treatments available, and beyond veterans, there are countless people around the world who suffer from the same condition as a result of accidents.

brainscansThe teams will first develop computer models that describe how neurons code memories, as well as analyzing neural signals in order to understand how targeted stimulation might help restore the brain’s ability to form memories. The UCLA team will use data collected from epilepsy patients that already have electrodes implanted in their brains to develop a model of the hippocampal-entorhinal system – known to be involved in learning and memory.

Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania team will study neurosurgical patients with implanted brain electrodes, recording data as they play computer-based memory games in order to gain an understanding of how successful memory function works. All patients will be volunteers, and the teams then plan to integrate these models into implantable closed-loop systems.

brain_chip2Like the research on rats, the implant will pick up neural signals from an undamaged section of the brain and route it around the damaged portion, effectively forming a new neural link that functions as well as the undamaged brain. And this is not the only research that aims to help assist in memory function when it comes to veterans and those suffering from TBI.

At Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL), for example, efforts are being made to create a new type of “memory bridge”. This research builds upon similar efforts from USC, where researcher Ted Berger developed the first implantable memory device (coincidentally, also as part of DARPA’s RAM program) where limited electrodes were applied to the hippocampal regions of the brain to assist in recall and memory formation.

brain-implant-hippocampus-usc-640x424However, until now, no research lab has had any real clue as to what kinds of “codes” are involved when applying electrical stimulus to the brain. The LLNL group, which previously contributed to the groundbreaking Argus II retinal prosthesis is now taking a more integrated approach. With the recent announcement of ample federal BRAIN Initiative funding, they aim to build multifunction electro-optical-chemical neural sensor-effectors.

On the electrical end, LLNL’s new wafer technology will use fairly high electrode counts (perhaps 500-1000 spots). Compared to the usual higher density 11,000-electrode chips that have been used in the past, these chips will have more sparsely distributed electrode locations. Integrated light guides will provide conduits for optogenetic manipulations, and as an added bonus bi-directional fluid channels for any number of chemical exchanges are also etched in. 

llnl-brain-implantAnd like their California/Penn colleagues, the LLNL has teamed up with DARPA to get the funding they need to make this project a reality. So far, DARPA funders have brought in the implant heavyweight Medtronic, which made news last year with the development of its own closed-loop stimulators, to lend its expertise. In their case, the stimulators merged Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat Parkinson’s.

Unfortunately, while immense progress in being made at the hardware end of things, there is still the matter of cracking the brains code first. In other words, where the device needs to be placed and which neurons need to be precisely controlled remain a mystery. Not all neurons are the same, and control hierarchies and preferred activation paths will inevitably emerge.

DeepBrain-New1Ultimately, what is needed in order to make precisely-targeted deep brain stimulation (DBS) possible is a real 3D model of the regions of the brain involved. Multiple efforts are underway, not the least of which are the work of Michele Tagliati’s group from the Movement Disorders Program in the department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai, or the Human Brain Project in Luasanne, Switzerland.

In these and other cases, the use of MRIs and brain scans to create a working map of the human brain – so that attempts to create biomimetic prosthetics that can enhance or assist in it’s functions – is the ultimate goal. And once researchers have a better idea of what the brain’s layout is, and what kinds of control hierarchies and paths are involved, we can expect to see brain implants becoming a regular feature of medicine.

And as always, devices that can restore function also open the way for the possibility of enhancement. So we can also expect that bionics prosthetics that restore memory and cognitive function will give way to ones that boost these as well. The dream of Homo Superior, the post-human, or transhumanism – whatever you choose to call it – is looking to be increasingly within our grasp.

And be sure to check out this video from LLNL showcasing how their new neural implant works:


Biotech News: Artificial Ears and Bionic Eyes!

3d_earLast week was quite the exciting time for the field of biotechnology! Thanks to improvements in 3D printing and cybernetics – the one seeking to use living cells to print organic tissues and the other seeking to merge the synthetic with the organic – the line between artificial and real is becoming blurrier all the time. And as it turns out, two more major developments were announced just last week which have blurred it even further.

The first came from Cornell University, where a team of biotech researchers demonstrated that it was possible to print a replacement ear ear using a 3D printer and an injection of living cells. Using a process the team refers to as “high-fidelity tissue engineering”,  they used the cartilage from a cow for the ears interior and overlaid it with artificially generated skin cells to produce a fully-organic replacement.

3dstemcellsThis process builds on a number of breakthroughs in recent years involving 3D printers, stem cells, and the ability to create living tissue by arranging these cells in prearranged fashions. Naturally, the process is still in its infancy; but once refined, it will allow biomedical engineers to print customized ears for children born with malformed ones, or people who have lost theirs to accident or disease.

What’s more, the Cornell research team also envision a day in the near future when it’ll be possible to cultivate enough of a person’s own tissue so that the growth and implantation can happen all within the lab. And given recent the breakthrough at Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine- where researchers were able to create printed cartilage – it won’t be long before all the bio-materials can be created on-site as well.

Eye-cameraThe second breakthrough, which also occurred during this past week, took place in Germany, where researchers unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device comes to us from the University of of Tübingen, where scientists have been working for some time to build and improve upon existing retinal prosthetics, such as Argus II – a retinal prosthesis developed by California-based company Second Sight.

Much like its predecessor, the Alpha IMS helps to restore vision by imitating the functions of a normal eye, where light is converted into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. In an eye that’s been afflicted by macular generation or diabetic retinophathy, these signals aren’t generated. Thus, the prosthetic works by essentially replacing the damaged piece of your retina with a computer chip that generates electrical signals that can be understood by your brain.

biotech_retinal-implantBut of course, the Alpha IMS improves upon previous prosthetics in a number of ways. First, it is connected to your brain via 1,500 electrodes (as opposed to the Argus II’s 60 electrodes) providing unparalleled visual acuity and resolution. Second, whereas the Argus II relies on an external camera to relay data to the implant embedded in your retina, the Alpha IMS is completely self-contained. This allows users to swivel the eye around as they would a normal eye, whereas the Argus II and others like it require the user to turn their head to change their angle of sight.

Here too the technology is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before it can outdo the real thing. For the most part, bionic eyes are still rely heavily on the user’s brain to make sense of the alien signals being pumped into it. However, thanks to the addition of configurable settings, patients have a degree of control over their perceived environment that most cannot begin to enjoy. So really, its not likely to be too long before these bionic implants improve upon the fleshy ones we come equipped with.

biotech_dnaWow, what a week! It seems that these days, one has barely has to wait at all to find that the next big thing is happening right under their very nose. I can foresee a future where people no longer fear getting into accidents, suffering burns, or losing their right eye (or left, I don’t discriminate). With the ability to regrow flesh and cartilage, and replace organic tissues with bionic ones, there may yet come a time when a human can have a close-shave with death and be entirely rebuilt.

I foresee death sports becoming a hell of a lot more popular in this future… Well, crap on me! And while we’re waiting for this future to occur, feel free to check out this animated video of the Alpha IMS being installed and how it works: