For the first time in history, an implant has been shown to boost human cognition beyond its natural capabilities, signaling the start of the era of “memory prosthesis”. Dr. Dong Song, the leader of a biomedical engineering team at the University of Southern California, presented his team’s findings at a meeting of the Society of of Neuroscience in Washington, DC.
The device is made up of electrodes that are implanted into the brain, which mimic the way we naturally process memories in order to improve memory capabilities. Song’s team have demonstrated it to increase performance on memory tests, and suggest that a similar approach may in the future enhance other brain skills, such as vision or movement.
We are writing the neural code to enhance memory function. This has never been done before -Dr. Dong Song
During testing, the novel device was implanted into the brains of 20 volunteers, who were already having electrodes implanted for epilepsy treatment. The device collected data on brain activity during tests designed to stimulate short-term and working memory - allowing researchers to determine the pattern of activity associated with maximum memory performance.
In subsequent memory and cognition tests, the device would stimulate the subject’s hippocampus with the desired pattern. Based on the small sample used by the researchers, short-term memory was improved by around 15%, while working memory had improved by 25%. Interestingly, when the subject’s brain was stimulated at random, cognitive performance worsened.
As advancements in medical technologies continue to dramatically increase human life expectancy, there is a growing demand for technologies that can help improve the quality of life in old age. Cognition enhancing technologies such as these could be life-changing for the ever-increasing number of people who are affected by dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, further tests are required before Song’s device is considered a viable treatment, but these initial findings show there is room for hope.
The team’s research also raises the question of whether technologies such as these should only be used as treatments, or whether they should be used to exceed our natural capabilities for the sake of improvement itself. What do you think?