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Cranial RAM cram plan aims to restore memory

DARPA wants to help those with brain disease or injury

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Brain implant chips – beloved of conspiracy theorists and science fiction writers alike for decades – have finally made it onto the US government's research list, courtesy of DARPA.

The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, home to research into humanoid robots, guided bullets, Spider-Man-style climbing pads, suspended animation and various cyber-security projects, now wants research proposals into memory-restoring chips.

It's not actually DARPA's first foray into neurones: its cat-brain chip project has been going on for quite some time, for example.

In the latest announcement, DARPA says its “Restoring Active Memory” (RAM) program “which aims to develop and test wireless, implantable “neuroprosthetics” that can help service members, veterans, and others overcome memory deficits incurred as a result of traumatic brain injury (TBI) or disease”.

It's slinging as much as $US15 million in the direction of UCLA, and up to $US22.5 million towards the University of Pennsylvania to act as lead institutions for the RAM initiative. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will catch up to $US2.5 million to create an actual “implantable neural device” – if the inter-disciplinary skunk-works' the universities put together manage to come up with an actual design.

Program manager Justin Sanchez says the RAM project “marks an exciting opportunity to reveal many new aspects of human memory and learn about the brain in ways that were never before possible”.

The project will first focus on developing computer models of memory, to 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”.

Those models would form the basis of what gets coded onto the “neuroprosthetic” chips.

UCLA's contribution will be based on previous studies demonstrating a link between stimulating the entorhinal region of the brain: “Considered the entrance to the hippocampus—which helps form and store memories—the entorhinal area plays a crucial role in transforming daily experience into lasting memories. Data collected during the first year of the project from patients already implanted with brain electrodes as part of their treatment for epilepsy will be used to develop a computational model of the hippocampal-entorhinal system that can then be used to test memory restoration in patients”, DARPA writes.

The UCLA group will then be tasked with developing a small, high-spatial-resolution neuromodulation device which it will implant into “patients with traumatic brain injury”, DARPA says.

Meanwhile over at Penn, researchers will focus on identifying the biomarkers of successful memory function, to try and create models for restoring memory function (note: this means the operation of the brain in storing memories, not the memories themselves). ®

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