The Memory Hacker

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Ted Berger has spent the past decade engineering a brain implant that can re-create thoughts. The chip could remedy everything from Alzheimer’s to absent-mindedness—and reduce memory loss to nothing more than a computer glitch.

The chip’s ability to converse with live cells is a dramatic first step, he believes, toward an implantable machine that fluently speaks the language of the brain—a machine that could restore memories in people with brain damage or help them make new ones.

Remedying Alzheimer’s disease would, if Berger’s grand vision plays out, be as simple as upgrading a bit of hardware. No more complicated drug regimens with their frustrating side effects. A surgeon simply implants a few computerized brain cells, and the problem is solved.

His mother’s illness and resulting death in 2005 had a profound and grounding influence on his work. “It suddenly made my research more than just a cool laboratory problem to solve,” Berger says. “Instead of just thinking about [the brain chip] as solving one of the great puzzles of neuroscience, I now think mostly in terms of increasing the quality of life for stroke, epilepsy and dementia patients.”

But the most dramatic achievement in humans so far is a neurosensor under development by brain researcher John Donoghue and his colleagues at Brown University. When placed over the brain’s motor-cortex area, the sensor enables quadriplegics to open and close a prosthetic hand merely by thinking about doing it. This technology, called BrainGate, allows the machine to convert the electronic signals coming from the brain (“I want to move this hand”) into motor activity by using algorithms embedded in a software chip.

Berger’s brain chip operates in two directions, functioning as a bridge over damaged cells. The chip, LaCoss tells me, represents 100 neurons that can individually receive analog signals from live brain tissue, convert them to digital signals, and then reconvert them to an analog signal relayed to healthy neurons on the other side.

Tampering with fundamental processes like memory and consciousness could play havoc with notions of identity. For instance, what if a brain chip of the future caused people to recollect things that never happened to them? Or what if it destroyed healthy memories to make room for new ones? “We could be screwing up good memories as well,” Granacki admits.

“Modeling or even mimicking is not replacing,” Schalick says. “Dr. Berger’s experiments at this stage offer only an incomplete bridge.”

It will be impossibly tough to prove that it can function as brain cells replacement. But, I can quite believe, at a certain point of time, there will be people willing to try out anyway.

Maybe still, there are other alternative ways of healing without controversy and complexity.


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