Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Switching On Sharper Memory

What if you could improve your memory with the flip of a switch? That's exactly what researchers at the University of Southern California and Wake Forest University have done. Theodore Berger, who is with
the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and holds the David Packard Chair in Engineering and is director of the USC Center for Neural Engineering, was part of a team that has discovered a way to help rats remember more clearly by using an electronic system that mimicks the way nerve impulses work. By using this innovative system, they were able to get rats to remember how to do something, even though the rats had been given drugs to make them forget.

The breakthrough is based upon recent learning about how the hippocampus works in enabling us to learn, by taking in information about an action, transmitting it from one region of the brain to another, and then bringing that information back when we need to repeat the action. This is how short-term memories become long-term memories. The team implanted an electronic prothesis into rats' brains that had been programmed with the information that should be residing in the brain but is blocked by drugs or some other problem. By flipping a switch the impulse from the prosthesis skips over the blockage to deliver the message and lets the rats remember. In other words, this little electronic device can do the same thing our brains do - transmit information from one region of the hippocampus to another, thus delivering a memory that had been wiped out.

The news release from USC and an article in the New York Times explain the elegant experiments far better than I can.

The potential for such a discovery is mind boggling. Imagine if scientists will be able to help dementia patients relearn how to do the tasks of daily living? I swear we are becoming more bionic everyday. (I have three friends who have had their knees replaced within the past three weeks.)

But there could be a dark side of which we must beware of. Since I read both science fiction books and conspiracy thrillers, I can also imagine such a breakthrough leading to the programming of minds. And that is a very scary thought. (Think: The Manchurian Candidate and other Cold War stories.)

Theodore Berger of USC was the lead author of “A Cortical Neural Prosthesis for Restoring and Enhancing Memory,” which was published in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

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