In a page straight out of science fiction, the Defense Department’s secretive high-tech research agency announced it was working on ways to implant electrodes in the human brain to improve human memory and to allow people with prosthetic arms to actually experience the sense of touch.
In a unique conference last week called “Wait, What?” DARPA — or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — revealed some of its current projects. Two of those, under the direction of biomedical engineer Justin Sanchez, revealed the future of brain implants that can both stimulate memory and restore the sense of touch.
For the memory trials — called the Restoring Active Memory, or RAM project — Sanchez experimented on dozens of human volunteers, all undergoing brain surgery for other conditions. Small electrodes were put into the part of their brains where “declarative memory” is formed, the type used in remembering lists. The electrodes were implanted to track how memories are formed, but electrical stimulation from them also improved the patients’ memories, said DARPA.
“Everyone has had the experience of struggling to remember long lists of items or complicated directions to get somewhere,” Sanchez said in a statement. “Today we are discovering how implantable neurotechnologies can facilitate the brain’s performance of these functions.”
Electrodes were implanted to track how memories are formed, but electrical stimulation from them also improved the patients’ memories.
In the experiment to create the feeling of touch, DARPA engineers and scientists at Johns Hopkins University inserted electrodes into the motor cortex of a 28-year-old paralyzed man with robotic arms. When pressure pads on the patient’s robotic fingers generated electrical signals, he reportedly experienced the sensation of touch.
“We’ve completed the circuit,” Sanchez said. “By wiring a sense of touch from a mechanical hand directly into the brain, this work shows the potential for seamless bio-technological restoration of near-natural function.”
The idea that electrodes can stimulate the human brain on mental activity and vivid experience has been a science fiction theme — and dream — for decades. The Ralph Fiennes-Angela Bassett cult classic “Strange Days” was a tale of intrigue about stolen memories that could be experienced with a headset that played them on mini-discs. (The hot item was “blackjack” snuff clips that allowed the user to xperience a person being killed.)
A more positive use was pictured in George Effinger’s series of futuristic detective novels, which depicted a world where people popped in “daddies” — data chips — so they could instantly know how to speak a foreign language, or play a musical instrument.
Sanchez’s research is already heading in that direction. DARPA’s “RAM Replay” program, set to launch in October, aims to understand how physical skills are learned based on the physiological ‘replaying’ of practice in neural circuits to solidify the memory. Stimulate these circuits and learning can potentially be accelerated.
Both experiments are yet to be peer-reviewed, and DARPA declines to provide further details until they are published. Even this much information is a rare breach for DARPA, a “dark” agency of the Defense Department that does secretive high-tech military research with cloaked budgets.
Former DARPA staffers talk about experiments to create “kill-proof” super soldiers, testing “inner armor” and plutonium injections. DARPA’s most public project to date has been BigDog, a freakish looking all-terrain robotic mule that has gone viral on YouTube.
One reason this research was made public is because it received special funding from the BRAIN Initiative launched by the White House in 2013 to map the human brain.