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Would you care for a memory boost?

Hippocampal prosthesis restores memory functions by creating a model-based electrical stimulation of the hippocampus — bypassing a damaged brain region (red X). Credit: USC

Science fiction is about to be superseded by science. Have you ever dreamt of downloading a book content in your brain (particularly a book you had to study at school) saving you the time of reading? I bet you did.

Now, we are not there yet, but what seemed to be wishful thinking is now something that will require a few more years (may be a hundred!) to be accomplished. An impossibility has been transformed into a very difficult endeavour.

A DARPA funded project carried out at Wake Forest Baptist Medica Center and at the University of Souther California has been able to detect patterns of electrical signals that the brain uses to memorise images. Each pattern is person specific (at least this is what has been found in the experiments so far) and can be generated artificially to restore a memory that went lost (because of a stroke or a neuro-degenerative ailment) or to speed up the memorisation process.

Researchers have created a model of the hippocampus of each person participating in the experiment based on the analyses of electrical signals detected through implanted electrodes and identified patterns associated to specific images. By stimulating with similar patterns the hippocampus regions they have demonstrated an increased memory performance between 35 and 37%. It might not seem huge but it is sufficiently large to demonstrate that those patterns are the ones involved in memory creation.

The procedure to detect the electrical activity and the delivery of the electrical patterns is invasive, it requires the insertion of multiple electrodes in the brain, so it is not something you would be looking forward (the persons involved in the experiments needed to have those implants for epilepsy study.

As I mentioned we are still far from a magic wand to augment our memory capabilities but these results demonstrate that in principle this is possible.

Of course this is a very “hard” way to augment our memory. Softer ways are already available, like using your smartphone to look for a name you forgot… Intermediate ways, like having an electronic contact lens doubling up as a screen that in complete privacy can show you the information you are looking for, are just around the corner. Augmentation is here to stay, it will just become more effective and pervasive and along with that it will change our perception of reality.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.