Memory loss could soon be a thing of the past. US military researchers say they’re developing a new brain implant that could restore mental faculties. This could bring a new lease of life to millions around the world, but raises ethical concerns.
The project is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), and could help soldiers who have suffered brain injuries during service, or millions of sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease. The program is expected to take around four years to complete and is part of a $100 million program.
FBO.gov – Restoring Active Memory (RAM) – DARPA seeks new methods for analysis and decoding of neural signals in order to understand how neural stimulation could be applied to facilitate recovery of memory encoding following brain injury. Ultimately, it is desired to develop a prototype implantable neural device that enables recovery of memory in a human clinical population. Additionally, the program encompasses the development of quantitative models of complex, hierarchical memories and exploration of neurobiological and behavioral distinctions between memory function using the implantable device versus natural learning and training.
The ultimate goal of the Restoring Active Memory (RAM) Program is to develop, fabricate, test, and validate a prototype device programmed to mitigate neural dysfunction in the injured brain, enabling the restoration of long-term memory in human clinical populations. In parallel to human clinical efforts, the program will leverage animal studies to further advance the quantitative model to account for the encoding and retrieval of complex memories and memory attributes, including their hierarchical associations with one another. The program will also entail the exploration of potential distinctions between multi-scale spatiotemporal neural and behavioral correlates of memory function that occur naturally and how well they relate and generalize to those generated via the memory restoration device.
“If you have been injured in the line of duty and you can’t remember your family, we want to be able to restore those kinds of functions,” DARPA program manager Justin Sanchez said this week at a conference in Washington DC, convened by the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas.
He believes that it is possible to develop prosthetic devices, which can interact with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a key part of the brain, which is used for the consolidation of information, including the short term and long term memory.
However, the ability to manipulate the brain does raise ethical questions. Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center says, “When you fool around with the brain you are fooling around with personal identity. The cost of altering the mind is you risk losing a sense of self, and that is a new kind of risk we never faced.”
In theory, the new technology, if and when it is developed, could alter the personality of a human, with Caplan mentioning that it could make soldiers more violent and callous.
Some progress has already been made on helping to reduce tremors in people who are suffering from Parkinson’s disease and even boosting memory in some patients who have contracted Alzheimer’s. This has been achieved through using a process called deep brain stimulation by sending electrical impulses to specific parts of the brain through a pacemaker.
Robert Hampson, who is an associate professor at Wake Forrest University, who is not connected to the DARPA project, has already tested some memory techniques on animals. His research on rodents and monkeys has shown that neurons in the hippocampus, which processes memory, fire differently when they see red or blue, or a picture of a face versus a type of food.
Using prosthetics designed to stimulate the hippocampus, Hampson was able to extend the short-term, working memory of his subjects. But to restore a human’s specific memory, the associate professor says scientists would need to know the precise pattern for that memory.
“The idea is to restore a function back to normal or near normal of the memory processing areas of the brain, so that the person can access their formed memories, and so that they can form new memories as needed,” Hampson concluded.
Areas of interest are as follows:
Technical Area One (TA One): Development of a computational model of neurobiological mechanisms underlying memory in humans.
Proposers should develop a computational model of human neural and behavioral function underlying declarative memories that can be explicitly recalled. The model should distinguish neural activity underlying information that is effectively converted to long-term memories and can be recalled hours, days, or weeks later, as compared to information that is not retained. Proposers should state the range of memory specificity
that their model will enable.
The following is a nominative list of memory components that the model should
• Attributes: Memory of sensory characteristics of objects or events or the contexts in which they occur.
• Categories: High-level semantic classification of sets of objects or events with similar characteristics.
• Associations: Two or more components (i.e., attributes or categories) linked to one another in a memory, occurring either simultaneously or across a temporal dimension (e.g., chronological order).
Importantly, proposers must specify the spatiotemporal scales required for deriving useful computational models and indicate which brain area(s) and types of neural function will be used to generate data for model development.
Researchers must propose a method for validating their model by demonstrating that the model can be used to restore declarative memories through neural stimulation (i.e., electrical, optical, chemical, etc). Proposers must demonstrate restoration or facilitation of at least five memory attributes, categorical classes, or associations between one or more attributes and categories. Models must not simply enable non-specific enhancement of memory function. Proposers are requested to specify whether a model can be extendable to additional memories or memory types. Efficacy of the model must be validated by demonstrating that human patients can explicitly retrieve the restored memories after at least 14 days.
Finally, proposers must specify the computational processing time and system architechture requirements for model output generation, and whether generation of model outputs will require open-loop or closed-loop model performance. For instance, will the final system operate in open-loop mode, in which online model performance will be independent of the patient’s ongoing neural activity? Conversely, will the final system operate in closed-loop mode, with online recordings of the patient’s neural activity required for memory restoration?
Technical Area Two (TA Two): Portable, secure wireless prototype implantable neural device for restoration of memory encoding in human clinical populations.
Proposers must describe efforts to develop, fabricate, and validate real-time performance of a prototype neural device that utilizes the computational model developed in TA One to restore memory function for specific attributes, categories, and/or associations in human clinical patients. The device must incorporate implantable probes for chronic recording and stimulation of human brain activity, a portable computational device for integration of the computational model developed in TA One, and secure wireless telemetry capabilities. Proposers must ensure that the capability range of the specifications listed below encompass the requirements of computational model performance as defined in proposed efforts for TA One. Proposers should be aware that FDA Investigational Device Exemption (IDE) approval will be required for use of any newly developed device in human clinical studies.
Requirements for proposed device components, as well as for the integrated prototype device, are addressed below:
Indwelling probes for recording and stimulation of human neural activity: Proposals should specify the spatiotemporal resolution at which neural activity will be recorded and stimulated, as well as the neurobiological basis of the proposed recording and effector techniques. Device parameters included in the proposals should include the number, size (diameter and depth), and spacing of the probes (and recording and stimulation pads, where applicable) that will be implanted, as well as the brain region(s) that will be targeted and the surgical procedures required for implanting the probes. Probes should be designed for chronic implantation.
Portable computational device for implementing the computational model: The device itself may be implanted cranially, or it may be worn on or close to the head. Proposers should specify the size, weight, computational, and power requirements for the device. In addition, proposals should specify what aspects of the computational model from TA One will be embodied onboard the device. Proposers must specify whether and to what extent their proposed device would be capable of incorporating extensions to the onboard model beyond the facilitation of memory functions proposed under TA One, or whether extensions to the model would require fabrication of a new device.
Secure wireless telemetry: Proposers should specify the bandwidth, power requirements, programming, monitoring, size, weight, and battery life of the proposed secure wireless telemetry system. Proposers should also indicate what information will be transmitted wirelessly to and from the computational device and the recording and stimulation probes and/or external device(s), the temporal constraints for effectively transmitting the signals, and the security measures employed to protect the data.
Integrated device parameters: Proposers must submit a preliminary system design that illustrates the flow of information between the recording and stimulation probes, a system for onboard processing, and any external device(s). Descriptions of proposed devices must also include recording and stimulation rate capabilities as well as the number of available channels for simultaneous recorded inputs and stimulation outputs. Chronic use of the prototype device should be demonstrated through effective recording and neural stimulation for at least 14 days after implantation in human patient volunteers.
Technical Area Three (TA Three): In animal testbeds, investigate multiple types of complex memories and develop novel computational models to restore memory function.
The goal of TA Three is to provide a basis to advance the computational models of human memory developed in TA One. First, proposers should utilize animal testbeds as a foundation on which to develop and test the computational model that will ultimately be transitioned to human clinical populations. Second, animal research should be leveraged to enable a more in-depth understanding of the neurobiological underpinnings of memory function than can be achieved in human patients due to technological and/or ethical restrictions. Proposers should use this knowledge to further advance the computational
models developed in TA One, enabling more accurate and efficient mechanisms of restoring complex memory functions. In order to address complex cognitive assessment, the use of higher order mammals (e.g., non-human primates) will be required. However, due to practical purposes, the use of other mammalian species (i.e., rodents) may be justified for mechanistic assessment and proof-of-concept experiments.
Program Phases and Milestones:
The RAM Program is anticipated to be a two-phase program corresponding to completion of investigations in all three Technical Areas. Each phase of the program is anticipated to last 24 months. Note that preference will be given to efforts that propose to satisfy the metrics in less time or will provide study designs allowing for greater statistical significance under abbreviated research timelines. The multi-disciplined capabilities of proposer teams is encouraged.
Phase One milestones act as clear demarcations of investigators that are on the “right trajectory” versus groups that are on the “wrong track.” In addition to end of Phase milestones, performers will be required to demonstrate intermediate models at Years One and Three. Additionally, RAM will conduct review meetings to evaluate progress. Lastly, we anticipate that performers will conduct, at a minimum, quarterly discussions with appropriate regulatory personnel through Phase One and Phase Two.
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Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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