Our understanding of “our” brain is still very crude, although we know so much more than just few years ago. In the next few years, within this decade, there is a strong consensus by scientists that we will be able to understand most of the fine mechanisms regulating the way our brain manipulate the information coming from our senses, compute it and store it generating thoughts, perceptions and emotion.
Through implants we will be able to detect what is going on and “help” the brain to process information. This clearly opens some very positive possibilities but it also brings us into unchartered worlds.
Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist working at the University of Southern California, is working on something that just few years ago classified him as a looney: helping the brain to convert short term memory into long term memory. All our experiences are temporarily stored in what is called a short term memory, short term because in the space of a few minutes, hours sometimes, it vanishes and we forget. That is, unless our brain has been able to move those memories into a different space (not a different “place”) aptly called “long term memory”. This is accomplished by the hippocampus an area on the lower part of our brain.
A person suffering from Alzheimer or who had a stroke affecting the hippocampus loses its capability of creating a long term memory, which means that he lives in the present, he has no “past”. A terrible situation if you think about it.
What Theodore has been working on has been trying to understand how memories are transformed from short to long term. He felt he understood a bit and then he moved on to experiment. He, and his team, developed a chip that can mimic the workings of neurones and then set up an implant (shown in the photo) to detect neuronal activity and to stimulate neurones.
He has proved that his mathematical model of what causes the transfer of a short term memory into a long term memory works well, and that was demonstrated by stimulating the neurones of rats and monkeys and showing that such a stimulation increases the capability to retain memories (i.e. they become long term memories).
In an interview, reported in the article linked to this post, Theodore says that what once was a pure, and unbelievable speculation, now is scientific work and the question is no longer if we will ever be able to increase our brain memory capabilities but it is about when we will succeed.
The first goal is to address the disabilities of those suffering from Alzheimer or to overcome the impairment provoked by a stroke. And again, it is no longer a matter of speculation but of making it happen soon.