In the next few months, highly secretive US military researchers say they will unveil new advances toward developing a brain implant that could one day restore a wounded soldier’s memory.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is forging ahead with a four-year plan to build a sophisticated memory stimulator, as part of President Barack Obama’s $100 million initiative to better understand the human brain.
The science has never been done before, and raises ethical questions about whether the human mind should be manipulated in the name of staving off war injuries or managing the aging brain.
Some say those who could benefit include the five million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and the nearly 300,000 US military men and women who have sustained traumatic brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Declarative memories are recollections of people, events, facts and figures, and no research has ever shown they can be put back once they are lost.
- Early days –
What researchers have been able to do so far is help reduce tremors in people with Parkinson’s disease, cut back on seizures among epileptics and even boost memory in some Alzheimer’s patients through a process called deep brain stimulation.
Those devices were inspired by cardiac pacemakers, and pulse electricity into the brain much like a steady drum beat, but they don’t work for everyone.
Experts say a much more nuanced approach is needed when it comes to restoring memory.
Hampson’s research on rodents and monkeys has shown that neurons in the hippocampus — the part of the brain that processes memory — fire differently when they see red or blue, or a picture of a face versus a type of food.
Equipped with this knowledge, Hampson and colleagues have been able to extend the animals’ short-term, working memory using brain prosthetics to stimulate the hippocampus.
They could coax a drugged monkey into performing closer to normal at a memory task, and confuse it by manipulating the signal so that it would choose the opposite image of what it remembered.
According to Hampson, to restore a human’s specific memory, scientists would have to know the precise pattern for that memory.
Instead, scientists in the field think they could improve a person’s memory by simply helping the brain work more like it used to before the injury.
- Ethical concerns -
It’s easy to see how manipulating memories in people could open up an ethical minefield, said Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
When it comes to soldiers, the potential for erasing memories or inserting new ones could interfere with combat techniques, make warriors more violent and less conscientious, or even thwart investigations into war crimes, he said.
DARPA’s website says that because its “programs push the leading edge of science,” the agency “periodically convenes scholars with expertise in these issues to discuss relevant ethical, legal, and social issues.”
Just who might be first in line for the experiments is another of the many unknowns.
Sanchez said the path forward will be formally announced in the next few months.