Scientists may have taken an important step in their work to restore memory to the injured brains of disabled soldiers.
By using a computer chip, researchers have given rats the ability to remember certain tasks over an extended period. Scientists are now studying the concept in monkeys, which moves them one step closer to being able to help troops who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.
The idea is to implant an electronic device that bypasses damaged parts of the brain to restore memory and cognitive functions. The research focuses on the hippocampus, an area of the brain that converts short-term memories to long-term ones. Scientists have created a synthetic device that performs this function in rodents. Without a working hippocampus, lab rats could only recall a certain task they were trained to perform for up to 10 seconds, said Theodore Berger, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California.
The system could help troops who have suffered damage to the temporal lobes after an improvised explosive device blast or similar event. Pentagon officials have estimated that nearly 400,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffered brain injuries.
“They tend to lose the ability to form new long-term memories,” Berger said. “So it’s exactly the kind of function that these guys need so they can learn a new job and interact with new people.”
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding the work, which includes the participation of USC, Wake Forest University and the University of Kentucky. DARPA has given the program the acronym REMIND, which stands for restorative encoding memory integration neural device.
Researchers already have begun training the primates, showing them pictures they must remember for a certain number of seconds and collecting initial data from their brains.
“It will take us a few years to work that out and then we’ll be onto humans,” Berger said.