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Published Sunday, March 8, 2015

Dr. Berger’s Memory Implants – Transhumanism 3

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Have you ever forgotten anything? I certainly have. For millions of people around the world suffering from brain damage, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, it’s a matter of life and death.

Now what if you could have a hard drive implanted in your brain? As your brain fails, the hard drive picks up the slack. As memories get digitized, you could even have memories transferred from another person’s hard drive. Got a new job? You’re instantly trained. Want to learn Spanish? You can download the memories of a full year of courses. Want to learn Kung Fu like in The Matrix?

Today, that’s all the stuff of science fiction. But Dr. Theodore Berger is on the brink of making it science fact. To some extent, he’s already done it with rats and monkeys.

The device is called a Hippocampal Prosthesis, because it connects to the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, and because it’s there to help with memory problems the way a prosthetic leg helps with a missing leg problem.

Of course,

People thought Berger was crazy. And by people, I mean his fellow neuroscientists. Berger spent two decades studying neurons to try and decode the input and output in terms of electrical signals. He discovered early on that the process was incredibly complex.

“Let’s say you put in 1 and get 2,” he said. “That’s pretty easy. It’s a linear relation.” Unfortunately, he discovered that there’s no form of linear input or output in the brain. “It’s always nonlinear.” Sometimes when a neuron fires the surrounding neurons will enhance the signal, and sometimes they dampen it.

The key to the whole enterprise seemed to be the hippocampus. Neuroscientists have known for some time that the hippocampus turns short term memories into long term ones. With the equations that Berger had been carefully building and testing for decades, he theorized that it might be possible to connect a prosthesis to the hippocampus that could store – and retrieve – long term memories.

With the help of...

Vasilis Marmarelis, a biomedical engineer at the University of Southern California, Berger began working on a prototype.

They first tested it in rats. After training the rats to pull a set of levers to receive treats, and recording the pulses in the rats brains with electrodes, they then gave the rats a drug to inhibit their ability to form memories and ran the test again. The rats, without their memories, failed. But when the implant played back the pulses into the rat’s brains, they were able to choose the correct levers again.

A similar test was then performed on primates, by having them use a computer to match certain images together and rewarding them with juice. The primate’s brains were then inhibited (With cocaine), and the memories played back, and they were able to perform again.

It’s important to remember...

That this process has taken Berger a very, very long time.

He started out blowing puffs of air into rabbit’s eyes to make them blink, and watching how their neurons lit up in patterns. That was 1976.

It wasn’t until the 1990s when computers were small enough and powerful enough to do some of the work of replacing a part of the brain. And it took another decade and a half to really get that working, even on a small scale.

Berger has gone from being a fringe figure in neuroscience to being at the forefront of an amazing new technology.

“I never thought I’d see this go into humans,” he said. “And now our discussions are about when and how.”

Right now,

An 1899 drawing of pigeon neurons, by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (Image: Wikimedia)

Berger’s implant will only work with a certain set of signals. But he says that the bioware of the brain is also somewhat limited. There are only so many ways that neurons can pulse at each other. That means that while it may not be possible to simulate every kind of memory, even being able to simulate some would be absolutely life changing for those with memory disorders.

“The goal,” he said, “is to improve the quality of life for somebody who has a severe memory deficit. If I can give them the ability to form new long-term memories for half the conditions that most people live in, I’ll be happy as hell, and so will be most patients.”

The days when you can get a memory implant like William Gibson imagined in Johnny Mnemonic might be a long way into the future, like the decades between Berger starting to work on his code and the technology catching up. Or it might be right around the corner.

Like Moon Ribas said, just a few years ago no one had smartphones, and now they’re practically a part of us.