A Brain Prosthesis That Improves Memory

By Shlomo Maital

     As a senior – very senior – citizen, I follow closely the science of memory. On Ira Flatow’s Science Friday podcast, Dr. Robert Hampson, neuroscientist at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina,  recounted his team’s amazing research on ways to help the brain remember stuff.

     “When people hear the word “prosthetic,” they’ll probably think of an arm or a leg. But what about a prosthetic for the brain? A team of neuroscientists is designing a device that could “zap” the brain into remembering information better, and it’s targeted for people with memory loss. They’re doing so by studying the electrical patterns involved in memory, then mimicking them with electrodes implanted in the brain.”

     Hampson studied epileptics who had implants in their brains’ hippocampus, to control seizures.  [The hippocampus is part of the limbic system, and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, and in spatial memory that enables navigation.]  He and his team helped the hippocampus remember pictures, by providing it with ‘codes’ that it had created when storing the initial memory.  By jogging the brain’s memory,  Hampson and team improved memory by 35%.   That is a big deal, right?

     What about Alzheimer’s patients?  Hampson said his team will now begin working with them, to test his prosthesis and see if it helps.  For more than two decades, the search for drugs that counter the plaque (amyloid proteins) that clog the brain, in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s, has been fruitless. 

      Perhaps Hampson’s approach offers new hope.