New Prosthetic Device Can Help Restore Memory

A new neural prosthetic device can help humans better recall specific memories, research shows.

With the aim of helping people with memory loss regain access to memories, scientists have successfully found a way to help individuals better recall specific images using a neural prosthetic device that essentially “zaps” the brain.

Conducted by scientists at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the University of Southern California (USC), the findings — published in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience — show that the approach, which uses electrical stimulation, is particularly effective in those with impaired memory function.

“Here, we not only highlight an innovative technique for neurostimulation to enhance memory, but we also demonstrate that stimulating memory isn’t just limited to a general approach but can also be applied to specific information that is critical to a person,” said Brent Roeder, Ph.D., a research fellow in the department of translational neuroscience at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the study’s corresponding author, in a news release.

The scientists tested their new approach of assisting the hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in storing memories) in helping people remember specific information on 14 adult epilepsy patients who were participating in a brain-mapping procedure to try and identify the origin of their seizures.

Researchers used their memory decoding model (MDM) — a system that observes brain activity to determine what patterns align with specific memory-related images — to identify memory patterns specific to each individual.

Patients then received MDM electrical stimulation while participating in visual memory tests, during which the model essentially fed those same brain activity patterns back into the hippocampus to help the patients remember images better.

They found noticeably improved performance in about 22% of cases, but that rate increased to 40% when looking at participants with impaired memory function who were given the stimulation on both sides of their brain.

“Our goal is to create an intervention that can restore memory function that’s lost because of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or head injury,” Roeder said. “We found the most pronounced change occurred in people who had impaired memory.”

The findings are the result of 20 years of preclinical work and a 2018 study which examined the effectiveness of “writing code” designed to emulate a person’s own memory patterns directly into the hippocampus.

This new research, however, is even more specific — using individuals’ distinct brain activity associated with memories of specific images.

“While much more research is needed,” Roeder said, “we know that MDM-based stimulation has the potential to be used to significantly modify memory.”

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