A neuroscientist who has transcribed how we make memories into a mathematical model has inched us closer to a concept only previously associated with science fiction – the ability to implant memories in the brain.
Dr. Theodore Berger, a professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California, has developed an “artificial hippocampus” that he has successfully placed within the brains of rats. Through the implant, Berger essentially conjured up memories in the rodents that previously didn’t exist.
His focus on the hippocampus makes sense – it’s known as the memory center of the brain and is critical to both short- and long-term memory functioning. Importantly, the hippocampus creates short-term memories and then encodes those experiences into long-term memories.
Berger’s research focuses on that cryptic encoding process. Building an artificial hippocampus began with memory tests. Berger and his fellow researchers taught rats to complete a memory test while the team assessed the neural activity firing from the rodents’ memory centers.
During the testing, the team was able to capture a series of “space-time codes” that essentially corresponded to memory encryption. Figuring out the patterns of the codes as memories are formed was critical to the team’s research.
“As the space-time code propagates into the different layers of the hippocampus, it’s gradually changed into a different space-time code,” Berger told Wired in December. “And we don’t understand why, but when it comes out, that space-time code is what the rest of the brain can recognize and use as a long-term memory.”
In other words, the brain uses the long-term code that the hippocampus ultimately produces as a signal to act, react or otherwise engage with the environment.
The Prospects of Implantable Memories
Today, much of the work underway in Berger’s lab sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, and there’s nothing in the immediate offing to suggest that a hippocampus transplant or replacement would work in humans.
But the work continues in earnest. Berger is reportedly conducting human trials with a different version of the artificial hippocampus, and recently he was brought on board as the chief science officer of Kernel, a startup seeking to develop the “advanced intelligence of tomorrow” through a “collaboration between the natural and the artificial.” Kernel founder Bryan Johnson invested $100 million into the company.
Therapeutic interventions might eventually help the millions of Americans, and countless worldwide, who suffer from memory loss due to dementia, stroke or other disorders.
Already, Berger is testing his implantable hippocampus in humans with epilepsy, which can severely damage the hippocampus as a result of seizures. This led to Berger and his team developing their first memory algorithm for humans. They reported that the algorithm predicted the firing of space-time codes about 80% of the time.
“The goal is to improve the quality of life for somebody who has a severe memory deficit,” Berger told SingularityHub last year. “If I can give them the ability to form new long-term memories for half the conditions that most people live in, I’ll be happy as hell, and so will be most patients.”
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.