DARPA awards $40 million for research into memory-controlling implants
he Pentagon’s premier research and development division, DARPA, has awarded a $40 million grant to a pair of American universities to help develop “memory restoration technologies” that the agency says are aimed at helping military personnel cope with brain injuries, but which seem like they could also be used to implant phony memories.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said in a press release that the new technology, Restoring Active Memory, or RAM, will help design and “develop wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical devices that can serve as ‘neuroprosthetics.'”
In its statement, DARPA said the agency would team up with the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Pennsylvania, each of which will head a team of scientists. Researchers will attempt to develop electronic implants that are capable of finding memory lapses in the brain and restoring them, ostensibly. U-Penn will receive $22.5 million over four years; UCLA will receive $15 million. They will each receive full funding if they are able to complete specific milestones in their research.
In addition, the agency has a cooperative agreement that is worth as much as $2.5 million in place with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, to develop a device for the UCLA-led portion of the research.
“The start of the Restoring Active Memory program marks an exciting opportunity to reveal many new aspects of human memory and learn about the brain in ways that were never before possible,” said DARPA Program Manager Justin Sanchez. “Anyone who has witnessed the effects of memory loss in another person knows its toll and how few options are available to treat it. We’re going to apply the knowledge and understanding gained in RAM to develop new options for treatment through technology.”
Pentagon officials say the effort is directed at helping correct the effects of traumatic brain injury, or TBI — which scores of veterans suffer from after surviving IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some vets have survived multiple explosions, thanks to the technology of specialized U.S. military vehicles used in the war zones.
TBI has been diagnosed in more than 270,000 service members since 2000; it also affects an estimated 1.7 million civilians every year. The condition frequently results in an impaired ability to retrieve memories formed by the sufferer prior to injury, as well as a reduced capacity to form new memories once the injury has occurred.
As noted by DARPA, however:
Despite the scale of the problem, no effective therapies currently exist to mitigate the long-term consequences of TBI on memory. Through the RAM program, DARPA seeks to accelerate the development of technology needed to address this public health challenge and help servicemembers and others overcome memory deficits by developing new neuroprosthetics to bridge gaps in the injured brain.
“We owe it to our servicemembers to accelerate research that can minimize the long-term impacts of their injuries,” Sanchez said. “Despite increasingly aggressive prevention efforts, traumatic brain injury remains a serious problem in military and civilian sectors. Through the Restoring Active Memory program, DARPA aims to better understand the underlying neurological basis of memory loss and speed the development of innovative therapies.”
The agency says it will begin its effort by supporting the development of multi-scale computer models with high spatial and temporal resolution that describe how neurons code declarative memories — “those well-defined parcels of knowledge that can be consciously recalled and described in words, such as events, times, and places,” the agency’s press release states.
DARPA officials say they are carefully weighting the ethical concerns of memory implants, including consulting with a team of neuroscientists in an attempt to find out what sort of negative effects could occur.