Scientists start work on implant to restore memory

A brain implant that can bring back memories? Probably a bad idea after a night on the tiles, but a great idea for patients with Alzheimer’s disease or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

This week, the US government announced that its Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded a $2.5 million grant to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to develop the first implantable device that will record and stimulate brain neurons to help restore memory.

Existing research shows that memories are created when neurons in certain parts of the brain encode, store, and retrieve information. When brain tissue in these areas is damaged, this process is compromised. But if these neural tissues can be stimulated into communicating with each other again, it should restore this process and allow patients to form new memories and retrieve old ones.

A team led by Satinderpall Pannu, director of LLNL’s Center for Bioengineering, will collaborate with UCLA and Medtronic, a medical technology company. They first need to understand exactly how individual neurons (cells that process and transmit information) communicate, and then they will work to develop a miniature, wireless, device that can be implanted into the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus, the parts of the brain responsible for memory.

This will contain microelectrodes to stimulate neurons, powered by an external electronic system worn around the ear. It’s not a permanent solution, rather a treatment option to kick-start recovery. Neural stimulation therapies are already used for some people with Parkinson’s but existing devices can only target large groups of neurons at once.

A prototype for this newer, more sophisticated device should be ready for clinical testing by 2017. It’s being funded by the Department of Defense because TBI has affected 270,000 members of the US military since 2000.

In the UK, it’s estimated that at least 1 million people are living with the effects of a serious brain injury, while Alzheimer’s currently affects around 496,000 people.

Image via Dave See’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley