Brain implants pose the potential threat of being abused like other brain-enhancing drugs.
After years of research, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Thomas Jefferson University came up with a device that improves the brain’s ability to store memories.
In this study published in the journal Nature Communications and led by senior author Michael Kahana, professor of psychology at UPenn, the researchers revealed that the brain implant they developed and the techniques it employs have promising implications on treating dementia, brain injuries and other cases of memory damage.
The implant is still being tested before commercial use, but the data is exciting. Tested in 25 people with epilepsy, the device showed an average of a 15 percent increase in word recall ability, about the same amount of memory that Alzheimer’s takes away from its patients over the course of two and a half years.
The new device sends electrical signals to stimulate the brain when it has trouble storing new information. When it senses the brain is functioning well, it remains silent. The ability of the implant to recognize the brain’s activity and autonomously decide whether to turn on and aid the brain or stay quiet is the result of years of work decoding brain signals.
The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s $70 million contribution, was aimed to develop treatments for brain injury and memory loss for soldiers who fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
At the time the new implant was being tested, 25 epilepsy patients were evaluated for an operation, a process that required threading electrodes into the brain and waiting for seizures to occur in order to determine whether surgical intervention may help stop them.
During this period, the scientists gave memory tests and took recordings from the consenting subjects. First the scientists had to collect the brain wave patterns from the electrodes attached to each patient’s brain to determine each individual’s optimal-functioning state (when their memory worked well) and their lower-functioning state (when their brains had trouble storing memories).
Then the researchers asked the subjects to memorize a series of words and then recall as many as possible after a short distraction. Of the many word lists given to each patient, some of them were memorized with the brain implant turned on, which delivered pulses of electricity through the electrodes to stimulate the location of the brain responsible for memory, while others were carried out with it turned off, as control data.
Patients reported that they could not tell when the implant was on or off, nor could they tell if it was affecting their memory. However, after analyzing the data, scientists determined that patients did 15 percent better when the brain stimulation was turned on.
The potential of enhancing memory walks a fine line between risk and opportunity. Although this study is an important breakthrough with many positive implications, even the authors themselves caution that “memory boosters” can be misused and abused. Across the United States, ADHD drugs are commonly used to enhance focus and memory among high school and college students.
Hopkins students know all too well the pressure to strive for academic perfection. In an interview with The News-Letter, sophomore Alice He said that she definitely knows of students who have taken drugs, such as Adderall, with the hope that these pills would help them study study for long periods of time before exams.
She expressed her concerns about the development of a brain implant that could potentially improve memory.
“I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of a brain implant that can optimize brain function,” she said.
She argues that this innovation could be abused to enhance brain power in people who don’t have brain damage or memory problems at all.
“On a greater scale, I also think there would be social repercussions if people can get these implants. Those who can afford it would definitely have an advantage in the working community. It would be unfair to those who do not have access to such an expensive procedure and device,” she said.
Even if somehow the implant is able to be limited only to medical purposes, He shared that she would still worry about the implant breaking down and affecting other parts of the brain, since even small amounts of damage to the brain can cause lasting damages.
The brain implant in question is not developed enough to be at the stage of causing an ethical debate. At this point, the device requires an extremely delicate operation that involves attaching multiple electrodes on the brain, and thus would likely be reserved only for severe cases of impairment.
As researchers continue to explore this study’s important medical implications, from treating traumatic brain damage and memory loss, to dementia, depression and anxiety, eventually they will need to grapple with the ethical issues this technology is bound to raise.