A Prosthetic Brain to Improve Memory?

U.S. Army veteran, Steven, is missing his left leg from a war injury. He wears a prosthetic leg, and it enables him to walk. For those who are missing an arm or leg, an artificial limb (or a prosthesis) can often replace it. A prosthesis can help you to perform daily activities such as walking, eating, or dressing, and in some cases, let you function nearly as well as before, sometimes even better.

Let’s say you were losing your short-term memory due to Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Imagine being able to replace the part of your brain that is no longer working with a prosthesis. Sounds amazing! And soon, it might just be a reality!

For years, researchers have been trying to figure out how they might be able to restore the brain’s memory after it is lost to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. But what if instead of trying to restore the ability to remember, they just rewired the brain itself? That’s the question scientists were trying to answer when they developed a memory-restoring prosthesis for the brain, the very first of its kind.

Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have developed a device that could prove life-changing for the growing segment of the population impacted by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The brain prosthesis was designed to help people suffering from memory loss and it can reportedly improve short-term memory by 15% and working memory by 25%!

Dong Song, a research associate professor of biomedical engineering at USC was instrumental in the development of the prosthesis, and he recently presented his findings during a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington D.C. According to a New Scientist report, the device is the first to effectively improve the human memory.

To test his device, Song’s team enlisted the help of 20 volunteers with epilepsy, a condition that causes memory problems. Electrodes were implanted into the brains of 15 people, and they recorded each person’s neuronal firing process as they performed a simple visual memory test: picking an image out of a group of images to match one they were previously shown.

In a second test, participants were shown a highly distinctive photographic image, followed by a short delay, and were asked to identify the first photo out of four or five others on the screen. The memory trials were repeated with different images while the neural patterns were recorded during the testing process to identify and deliver correct-answer codes.

After a longer delay, researchers showed the participants sets of three pictures at a time with both an original and new photos included in the sets, and asked the patients to identify the original photos, which had been seen up to 75 minutes earlier. When stimulated with the correct-answer codes, study participants showed a notable improvement in memory over baseline.

Scientists used the data to create a mathematical model of how the brain would fire when memories form the way they are intended. When the new firing pattern was implemented in the brains of participants via the electrodes, participants’ short-term memory performance showed a 35% to 37% improvement over their original test.

“We showed that we could tap into a patient’s own memory content, reinforce it and feed it back to the patient,” researchers said. “Even when a person’s memory is impaired, it is possible to identify the neural firing patterns that indicate correct memory formation and separate them from the patterns that are incorrect. We can then feed in the correct patterns to assist the patient’s brain in accurately forming new memories, not as a replacement for innate memory function, but as a boost to it.”

Researchers also stated that, “(t)o date we’ve been trying to determine whether we can improve the memory skill people still have. In the future, we hope to be able to help people hold onto specific memories, such as where they live or what their grandkids look like, when their overall memory begins to fail.”

The current study is built on more than 20 years of preclinical research on memory codes, and it’s the first of its kind to identify a patient’s own brain cell code or pattern for memory and write in that code to make existing memory work better. Researchers believe that it is an important first step in potentially restoring memory loss. Further testing is required before Song’s device could be approved as a treatment for Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

This Could be Life-Changing for Alzheimer’s Patients

While a better memory could be useful for students cramming for tests or those with trouble remembering names, it could be absolutely life-changing for people affected by Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. If a prosthesis like the one described is able to help patients regain even part of their lost memory function, the impact would be felt not only by the patients themselves, but their families and even the economy.

While the study is small and only focused on episodic memory—short-term memory, such as where you parked your car—scientists hope to use it one day to help patients with cognitive problems remember things from their past.

Do You or a Loved One Have Alzheimer’s or Another Form of Dementia?

As Bill Gates noted when announcing plans to invest $100 million of his own money into dementia and Alzheimer’s research, the disease is “a multi-level problem that’s positioned to get even worse.” When it comes to legal planning for long-term care, generally the earlier someone with dementia plans, the better the result. But it is important to know that it’s never too late to begin the process of Long-term Care Planning, also called Lifecare Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection Planning.

Medicaid planning can even be started by an adult child acting as agent under a properly-drafted Power of Attorney, and even if your loved one is already in a nursing home or receiving other long-term care services.

Medicaid Asset Protection

Do you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s or any other type of dementia? Persons with dementia and their families have unique financial and legal issues. Here at the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial, legal, and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect your hard-earned assets while maintaining your comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veteran’s Aid and Attendance. As always, please feel free to call us for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Medicaid Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Medicaid Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Medicaid Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Medicaid Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.