An illustration of the neuromodulation device designed to restore memory, to be developed by the Restoring Active Memory program team at UCLA. (Courtesy UCLA)
The Pentagon’s research arm is exploring the development of brain implants that might one day reverse memory loss caused by traumatic brain injuries, the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The goal of the project, still in the early stages, is to develop game-changing technology that would bridge the gap in damaged parts of the brain that encode and retrieve memories. The device is envisioned as a wireless, implantable neuroprosthetic for patients with brain injuries and dysfunction.
On July 8, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced it had awarded several multi-million-dollar research grants. The project represents an entirely new approach as pharmaceuticals and other therapies have yet to reach a dramatic breakthrough in TBI and memory.
“We’re trying to change the game on the options available to our military members when it comes to traumatic brain injuries, and come up with new therapies,” said DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory program manager Justin Sanchez, adding later: “We need new hardware, new devices that can interface with the brain, and we need to develop new computational models that allow clinicians to interface with the brain.”
TBI is a serious cause of disability in the United States. According to data provided by DARPA, it has been diagnosed in more than 270,000 service members since 2000 and affects an estimated 1.7 million U.S. civilians each year. A TBI often impairs the ability to retrieve memories and a reduced capacity to form new memories.
To be successful, DARPA’s program requires a number of significant advances. Sanchez said researchers have “huge technological and scientific challenges” to overcome.
Clinicians would have to be able to detect, interpret and interact with the neurological signals that create and encode memories. The first step, Sanchez said, will be to study declarative memories, which include events, times and places — like where you put your keys, and when.
“As you can imagine, a person with those injuries cannot conduct the tasks of daily living,” Sanchez said. “We’re going to start with those simple, high-impact areas.”
Researchers will attempt to apply the science in studies involving patients with memory-loss or other neurological conditions and new kinds of implantable prosthetics. Research includes coupling special computer processors to interpret brain activity with signal amplifiers and power systems all small enough to be implanted in a human brain.
The next step would be research into encoding memories, essentially sending signals with the neuroprosthetics intended to restore memory-creating function in the brain. To treat traumatic injuries to the hippocampus in which memory-forming neurocircuitry is disconnected, for example, researchers will have to better understand memory-related signaling. The hope is the neuroprosthetics can be built to mimic those signals.
The University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Pennsylvania will each head a multidisciplinary team to develop electronic interfaces to sense such memory deficits and attempt to restore normal function, according to DARPA.
The University of Pennsylvania will receive up to $22.5 million over four years, UCLA will get up to $15 million, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California will get up to $2.5 million.
DARPA officials said the project is motivated by an ethical imperative to help troops who shouldered the burden of 12 years of war.