For more than a decade, University of Southern California neuro-engineer Theodore Berger has been working on an artificial hippocampus, an electronic aid for the part of the brain that scientists believe encodes experiences as long-term memories. Now Berger and a new startup called Kernel are confident that the device is ready for prime time.
“We’re testing it in humans now, and getting good initial results,” Berger told IEEE Spectrum. “We’re going to go forward with the goal of commercializing this prosthesis.”
In Berger’s approach, electrodes in the hippocampus first record electrical signals from certain neurons as they learn something new and encode the memory. These electrical signals are the result of neurons “firing” in specific patterns. Berger studied how electrical signals associated with learning are translated into signals associated with storing that information in long-term memory. Then his lab built mathematical models that take any input (learning) signal, and produce the proper output (memory) signal.
An implant could help someone whose hippocampus doesn’t properly turn information into memories. An implanted memory prosthetic would have electrodes to record signals during learning, a microprocessor to do the computations, and electrodes that stimulate neurons to encode the information as a memory.
For people who have difficulty forming lasting memories on their own, the prosthetic would provide a boost. “We take these memory codes, enhance them, and put them back into the brain,” Berger says. “If we can do that consistently, then we’ll be ready to go.”