Neurology: Memory Restoration Research

The Defense Department is funding neurology research to see if “neuroprosthetics” implanted in the brain can heal damaged memory. Randy Rieland; July 16, 2014 / smithsonian.com

Despite major breakthroughs in neurology, we still have much to learn about the inner workings of the brain. One major area of mystery in neurology revolves around how memory works, and how to restore a lost memory– particularly for those who have sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

The mystery may soon be solved thanks to $40 million in grants from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for its newly launched Restoring Active Memory (RAM) project.

The focus will be on the fastest growing branch of neurology, known as direct brain recording. This groundbreaking approach allows scientists to follow brain activity in real time through implanted electrodes. The technique could enable researchers to map how neurons communicate when memories are formed or recalled, which might make it possible to develop a neuroprosthetic device that could mimic the memory-creation process by stimulating those same neurons.

Neuroprosthetics have been in use for three decades, most notably in the form of cochlear implants which have treated over 100,000 patients with severe hearing loss. Variations of neuroprosthetics are being used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and major depression among other uses. In addition to the potential for memory restoration, experts believe this branch of neurology can lead to significant improvements in patients with paralysis, Alzheimer’s disease, and speech deficits.

The Brains of the Operation

RAM is part of the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a proposed $4.5 billion national endeavor aiming to revolutionize our understanding of the brain with $110 million allocated through the end of the year. California recently announced Cal-BRAIN (California Blueprint for Research to Advance Innovations in Neuroscience), a $2 million state complement to the program which seeks to engage the private sector in neurology research efforts.

Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, introduces US President Barack Obama before his speech on the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative on April 2, 2013 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Launched with approximately $100 million in the Presidential's Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, the BRAIN Initiative ultimately aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders. Photo: Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty Images

Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins, introduces US President Barack Obama before his speech on the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative on April 2, 2013 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Launched with approximately $100 million in the Presidential’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget, the BRAIN Initiative ultimately aims to help researchers find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders. “As humans we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter between our ears,” President Obama said during the announcement. Photo: Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty Images.

The RAM program is a collaborative effort of teams from three institutions, each with their own focus: University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Pennsylvania and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

UCLA is focusing their neurology research on the entorhinal cortex of the brain. Located in the medial temporal lobe, researchers have identified this as the main interface between the hippocampus and neocortex- an area crucial to declarative and spatial memories. The team will use data from electrodes already implanted in epilepsy patients to develop a digital model of how this area of the brain operates during memory-making. This will serve as the basis for the work of scientists at Livermore who will then develop an implantable device that can replicate the process by stimulating the appropriate neurons.

The University of Pennsylvania team will work with patients who have electrodes implanted in multiple areas of their brain, as part of a broader approach to neurology involving interactions within the brain during the formation of memories. They will track neural activity as participants play memory games, in an effort to identify the processes that occur when new memories are stored as well as the recollection of old memories. Scientists also hope to identify “biomarkers” for when something goes wrong.

Can Neurology Save our Soldiers?

Although the project does have its skeptics, DARPA is confident in their decision to take an innovative approach to memory restoration efforts. With hopes to develop this technology in the next four years, the agency sees this branch of neurology as especially crucial and timely in light of challenges facing many recovering veterans.

“We owe it to our service members to accelerate research that can minimize the long-term impacts of their injuries,” remarked RAM manager Justin Sanchez.

Over 270,000 soldiers have faced neurology related injuries such as traumatic brain injuries.

Research suggests 1 in 5 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have signs of traumatic brain injury.

Since 2000, over 270,000 veterans have suffered TBI along with an estimated 1.7 million U.S. civilians. Known as the ‘signature wound’ of troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, sufferers face difficulties completing simple tasks from recalling names to remembering food they placed in the oven. With few effective treatments, recovery is an arduous task and often patients must rely on family members to ensure their safety and livelihood.

RAM hopes to see early prototype devices developed within the first year of the project to guide development of more complex components.

“This is a truly remarkable period of time,” Sanchez said. “To think about how we are going to learn about memory in the human brain, to think about the potential for developing those next generation medical neuroprosthetic devices that can provide new options for our injured military personnel, is truly remarkable.”

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The Michelson Medical Research Foundation‘s Groundwork blog is brought to you thanks to the generous support of Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.
The Michelson Medical Research Foundation‘s Groundwork blog is brought to you thanks to the generous support of Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.
The Michelson Medical Research Foundation‘s Groundwork blog is brought to you thanks to the generous support of Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.
The Michelson Medical Research Foundation‘s Groundwork blog is brought to you thanks to the generous support of Dr. Gary K. Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.