Exploring Emergent Technology: Memory Augmentation Implants

erin1What is a memory augmentation implant?

Memory augmentation implants, currently in the early stages of research and development, are a type of neural prosthesis: a technological extension of the nervous system that seeks to restore lost function, usually due to disease or injury, or to supplement normal function [1]. Memory augmentation implants can be placed within the brain and function to either restore lost memories or erase ones that are unwanted. With the many benefits of memory augmentation implants, there are also ethical concerns, which make it imperative to keep this growing field of technology regulated.

What progress has been made?       

So far, there are two separate research teams that have made progress on the front of developing memory augmentation implants. One is a team of scientists, led by Sam A. Deadwyler, out of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at University of Southern California, Los Angeles (USC) and the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Wake Forest University. This team has created a memory augmentation implant that has been tested so far in rats and primates with some success [2] [3] [4]. Their most recent test of a memory augmentation implant occurred in 2013. They successfully repaired and enhanced the memory encoded in the hippocampus of primates [4]. This result made the team hopeful that they will one day be able to use similar technology in humans to restore lost memory function.

The other entity working to make progress on this technology is a group of institutions funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These institutions include University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Pennsylvania, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This research, coined Project: “Restoring Active Memory”, is part of Obama’s BRAIN initiative which hopes to take strides in furthering our understanding of the brain to solve real world problems [5]. These institutions have been tasked by DARPA to design a memory augmentation implant, mainly for veterans with traumatic brain injuries. This project began within the last year and very little information has been released about its progress.

It is worth noting that both of these groups have made limited progress; it is not yet clear whether purposeful manipulation of human memory with this type of implant is feasible. Even though working devices have been created, they have not been tested on humans, and the scientists behind them are still working on pinpointing how exactly they interact with the human brain to function. The DARPA website is illustrative of this point; it cites several significant intermediary goals that need to be reached before the use of a memory augmentation implant in humans might be possible [6].

Who could benefit from this technology?

The development of this technology is mainly geared to help individuals with traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) and dementia [7]. A traumatic brain injury is understood as any damage to the head that causes disruptions in the brain [8]. The occurrence of memory problems caused by traumatic brain injuries depends on the severity of the injury; most commonly, these problems include an inability to remember the event that caused the injury and difficulty learning or remembering any new information [9].

From 2000 to 2011, a total of 235,046 service members across all branches of the military were diagnosed with a TBI [10]. So many service members have been affected by this ailment in the last decade that traumatic brain injuries have been dubbed the “signature injury” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan [11]. This injury is not exclusive to combat though; another 1.7 million civilians are also affected each year in the United States [12].

Furthermore, individuals with dementia could benefit from this technology. Dementia is a general term used to describe a decrease in mental ability that interferes with everyday life [13]. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, causes memory loss that becomes more severe over time, accompanied by other debilitating symptoms [14]. As of 2014, approximately 5 million Americans over the age of 65 have been affected by Alzheimer’s disease, which is about 11% or 1 in 9. This number is expected to increase dramatically as the age of the “Baby Boomer” generation shifts. It is estimated that by 2029, the elderly ages 65 and older will make up 20% of the total US population, compared to almost 14% in 2012 [15]. As of now, there are drugs and cognitive therapies that can temporarily improve symptoms of dementias, but no cure [16]. Moreover, with the forecasted increase in prevalence of dementia, there is a great need for a device that can restore individual memory capacity.

The focus of research right now is on developing implants with the capability to restore memory capacity in order to aid those who urgently need the assistance in order to function. Memory erasure is another possible use of memory augmentation implants.

What are potential ethical concerns of this device?

Although these implants are still in their early stages of development, there are already ethical concerns about their development and implementation. If clinical human trials do begin with this device, as they are planned to, there is risk to the patient due to the nature of the placement of these implants inside the brain as well as their intention to change memory. Although researchers might have data from animals that shows the devices work, they cannot truly give informed consent to a participant in a research trial because researchers cannot be sure of what will actually happen [17]. Memory is a fundamental part of a person’s identity, and although the gains of altering it could be great, there is a looming risk of a mistake that could erase part of what makes a person unique.

If a working, approved device emerges from all of this research there will be a concern, just as there is for all neural prosthetics, about how it should be used, specifically whether only for restoration or also for supplementation [18]. Individuals with TBI or dementia could greatly benefit from having their memory capacity restored. But what about non-impaired individuals? Should they have access to technology to selectively erase their memories or, potentially, to have immense amounts of information downloaded straight into their brains? If these implants do become commercially available and if they are expensive, they could further class divisions. As with most medical technology, it is apparent that as this technology develops, it must also be regulated.



[1] NIH. “Neural Interfaces Program.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/research/npp/.

[2] Berger, Theodore W., Robert E. Hampson, Dong Song, Anushka Goonawardena, Vasilis Z. Marmarelis, and Sam A. Deadwyler. “A cortical neural prosthesis for restoring and enhancing memory.” Journal of Neural Engineering 8, no. 4 (2011): 046017.

[3] Hampson, Robert E., Greg A. Gerhardt, Vasilis Marmarelis, Dong Song, Ioan Opris, Lucas Santos, Theodore W. Berger, and Sam A. Deadwyler. “Facilitation and restoration of cognitive function in primate prefrontal cortex by a neuroprosthesis that utilizes minicolumn-specific neural firing.” Journal of neural engineering 9, no. 5 (2012): 056012.

[4] Hampson, Robert E., Dong Song, Ioan Opris, Lucas M. Santos, Dae C. Shin, Greg A. Gerhardt, Vasilis Z. Marmarelis, Theodore W. Berger, and Sam A. Deadwyler. “Facilitation of memory encoding in primate hippocampus by a neuroprosthesis that promotes task-specific neural firing.” Journal of neural engineering 10, no. 6 (2013): 066013.

[5] “BRAIN Initiative.” The White House. http://www.whitehouse.gov/share/brain-initiative.

[6] DARPA. “Restoring Active Memory (RAM).” Biological Technologies Office. http://www.darpa.mil/ our_work/bto/programs/restoring_active_memory_ram.aspx.

[7] The CDC, NIH, DoD, and VA Leadership Panel. “Report to Congress on Traumatic Brain Injury in the United States: Understanding the Public Health Problem among Current and Former Military Personnel.” (2013).

[8] Aftandilians, Tania. “Traumatic Brain Injury: The “Signature Injury” of the Iraq War.” Berkeley Scientific Journal 12, no. 1 (2009).

[9] Alzheimer’s Association. “Traumatic Brain Injury.” alz.org. http://www.alz.org/dementia/ traumatic-brain-injury-head-trauma-symptoms.asp.

[10] Cronk, Terri Moon. “DARPA Developing Implants to Help with TBI Memory Loss.” U.S. Department of Defense. Last modified July 15, 2014. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://www.defense.gov/news/ newsarticle.aspx?id=122673.

[11] CDC. “Traumatic Brain Injury in the United States: Fact Sheet.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/ get_the_facts.html.

[12] Cronk, Terri Moon. “DARPA Developing Implants to Help with TBI Memory Loss.” U.S. Department of Defense. Last modified July 15, 2014. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://www.defense.gov/news/ newsarticle.aspx?id=122673.

[13] Alzheimer’s Association. “What Is Dementia?” alz.org. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://www.alz.org/what-is-dementia.asp.

[14] Alzheimer’s Association. “What Is Alzheimer’s?” alz.org. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp.

[15] Pollard, Kevin, and Paola Scommegna. “Just How Many Baby Boomers Are There?” Population Reference Bureau. http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2002/JustHowManyBabyBoomers AreThere.aspx

[16] Alzheimer’s Association. “What Is Dementia?” alz.org. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://www.alz.org/what-is-dementia.asp.

[17] Chhatbar, Pratik. “The future of implantable neuroprosthetic devices: ethical considerations.” Journal of long-term effects of medical implants 19, no. 2 (2009).

[18] Ibid.

Image References:

[1] Human brain augmentation. Image. Truthfall. September 17, 2012. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://truthfall.com/microchipped-humans-nightmare-becomes-reality/.

[2] Brain electrical activity. Image. iO9. January 31, 2012. Accessed December 22, 2014. http://io9.com/ 5881106/how-does-your-brain-create-short-term-memories.

Erin Pontius, a student at the George Washington University, intends to pursue a double major in psychology and public health as well as a minor in sociocultural anthropology. She is interested in the ethics of biotechnologies and in their immense potential to improve lives worldwide. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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