In the future, with the help of an electrical medical implant, we could never forget where we left our keys or parked our cars.
Researchers at Wake Forest University have developed a medical device — an electrode prosthesis — that when attached to a Rhesus macaque monkey’s neural complex not only restored its damaged memory function but also improved the monkeys’ memory so that it was better than before the experiments started, reports Daily Tech. Monkeys are ideal for testing brain activity because they are closely related to humans and have significantly similar neural physiology.
The researchers tested the monkeys’ learning ability at first by showing them an image and then tracked their movements with a motion-activated sensor. If the monkeys chose an image on a second screen that they had just seen, they were awarded with a drop of juice. Typically, the monkeys were correct on the memory test about 70% to 75% of the time.
The researchers then simulated a brain injury or cognitive degradation by doping the monkeys with cocaine, which impairs learning. They then used the electrode prosthesis to stimulate two areas of the neural cortex. The monkeys not only overcame cocaine’s ability to suppress memory, but improved their memory.
“The reason the MIMO model was effective in improving performance in the task was because we specifically ‘tuned’ the model to analyze the firing of neurons that occurred when the animals correctly performed the behavioral task,” says Professor Sam Deadwyler, a senior author of the paper that was published in Journal of Neural Engineering. “The brain doesn’t always produce the full ‘correct’ pattern on every trial.”
The tests on monkeys produced enough encouraging results to make the researchers believe that the device could soon be applicable to humans with brain injuries. Deadwyler says:
In the case of brain injury or disease where larger areas are affected, the system would record the inputs to that area from other areas and, when they occur, program the delivery of the appropriate output patterns to brain regions that normally receive signals from the injured area, thereby restoring lost brain function.
The fact that the electrodes improved neural function over baseline memory ability could mean that people could use the system to improve their memory and response. Whether that possibility prompts an ethics debate is anyone’s guess.
Source: “Cocaine, Cybernetic Implant Used in Study to Improve Monkey Memory,” Daily Tech, 9/15/12
Image by Mieciu K2.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.