The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has invested $77 million in the last 5 years to develop devices to enhance memory-generation. Last year, two teams conducting experiments on humans published tests showing significant results to boost memory retention and in one case, the ability to “read thoughts” to a limited degree.
One device was created by Michael Kahana, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahana’s device connects to the left temporal cortex, monitors the brain’s electrical activity and predicts whether a lasting memory will be created.
If the level of brain activity doesn’t suggest a memory will be formed, the device zaps the brain, undetectable to the patient, to increase the strength of the signal and the chance of a memory being formed. In two different studies, researchers found memory boosted by 15% to 18%.
The second device is more precise. In a study published last year, people showed improved memory retention of as much as 37%.
To form memories, several neurons fire in a specific pattern. By analyzing a few dozen neurons in the hippocampus, the team learned to identify patterns indicating correct and incorrect memory formation and were able to supply accurate patterns when the brain made a mistake. Presenting people with hundreds of images, the team could recognize certain neural firing patterns as particular memories.
The devices have only been tested on epileptic patients with electrodes already implanted in their brains. The implant requires hardware that won’t fit into a person’s skull.
Teams are working to develop smaller implants and a startup is already working to commercialize Kahana’s device.