A prosthetic for the brain could restore a soldier’s lost memory

DARPA and two university teams are working to develop brain implants that restore memory in patients who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.

Prosthetics may no longer be limited to external limbs, if the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s project to restore memories lost from traumatic brain injury (TBI) gets positive results.

The Restoring Active Memory program, which is seeking to develop and test implantable wireless neuroprosthetics that are capable of sensing and fixing memory deficits caused by injury, has set up cooperative research agreements worth $40 million, according to a DARPA release.

UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania have been chosen to lead a multidisciplinary team of scientists to develop the technology. Over the course of four years, UCLA will receive $15 million and Penn will get $22.5 million. DARPA also has a separate $2.5 million cooperative agreement with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the development of an implantable device for the UCLA team.

Full funding will be contingent on whether the teams meeting technical milestones.

The program envisions the use of wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical devices that would cure retrograde and anterograde amnesia, allowing TBI-affected individuals to encode new memories or recall old ones. To do so, research will focus on computational models of how neurons encode memories and how targeted neural stimulation may help restore function.

DARPA, for now, is focusing on declarative memory—memories related to facts and knowledge rather than procedural memories related to skills.

The teams will take separate approaches. The team from UCLA will focus on the entorhinal area of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps form and store memories, and will develop a neuromodulation device that would be implanted into that area. Meanwhile, the Penn team will be applying a broader approach to monitor brain activity across various regions as the team seeks to investigate the neural activity of successful memory functions.

TBI is a problem for the military—more than 270,000 service members have been diagnosed with the disability since 2000, and it affects about 1.7 million U.S. civilians each year, according to DARPA. Severe TBI can be caused by movement of the brain within the skull or by a foreign object entering the skull, and leads to issues affecting motor function, sensation, and emotion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cognitive functions such as the ability to form and retain memories can also be affected.

Given the complexity of the brain, few treatments are available for people suffering from TBI. Direct and indirect medical costs related to TBI were estimated to be $76.5 billion in 2010.

“The start of the Restoring Active Memory program marks an exciting opportunity to reveal many new aspects of human memory and learn about the brain in ways that were never before possible,” Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager, said in the release. “Anyone who has witnessed the effects of memory loss in another person knows its toll and how few options are available to treat it. We’re going to apply the knowledge and understanding gained in RAM to develop new options for treatment through technology.”

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