In a development that could mean the world for suffers of Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and traumatic brain injury, scientists have devised a brain implant that successfully boosted memory in its initial trials.
The device works like a pacemaker, sending electrical pulses to aid the brain when it is struggling to store new information, but remaining quiet when it senses that the brain is functioning well.
In the test, reported Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, the device improved word recall by 15 percent — roughly the amount that Alzheimer’s disease steals over two and half years.
The technology is still in an experimental stage and has only been tested in patients with epilepsy, but researchers are contemplating making the device commercially available.
Doctors have used similar implants for years to block abnormal bursts of activity in the brain, most commonly in people with Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
“The exciting thing about this is that, if it can be replicated and extended, then we can use the same method to figure out what features of brain activity predict good performance,” said Bradley Voytek, an assistant professor of cognitive and data science at the University of California, San Diego.
Dr. Voytek noted, however, that in its current state, the device requires a delicate surgical procedure to implant the device and place numerous electrodes in the brain. This would limit implantation to only the most debilitating cases.
“Ideally we can find other, less invasive ways to switch the brain from these lower to higher functioning states,” he said. “I don’t know what those would be, but eventually we’re going to have to work out the ethical and public policy questions raised by this technology.”