DARPA’s Memory Restoration Program

We all forget things from time to time. 

The grocery list.  Our wallets.  Phone numbers.  That guy at the party who clearly remembers you but you can’t for the life of you remember his name. Forgetting things seems like it’s almost part of the human experience.  For the most part, these are easily corrected mistakes.  You go get the list, find your wallet, charge your phone, smile politely, and move on.

But for people with traumatic brain injuries (TBI), getting back into the swing of things is much more of a challenge.  For people with TBI, memory loss isn’t just a “whoopsie” sort of thing.  It can be debilitating. Until now.

DARPA's Restoring Active Memory program will attempt to develop implantable technology to bridge gaps in the injured brain and restore normal memory function to people with memory loss caused by injury or disease. (Photo from DARPA/Released)

DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory program will attempt to develop implantable technology to bridge gaps in the injured brain and restore normal memory function to people with memory loss caused by injury or disease. (Photo from DARPA/Released)

DARPA has announced a new kind of program called RAM: Restoring Active Memory.

Their vision? To develop neuroprosthetics for memory recovery in patients living with brain injury and dysfunction.  DARPA wants to directly address the needs of our injured service members, and in the long term, the broader civilian community affected by post traumatic brain injury.

Basically, they want to implant a device in the brain which will help recover and retain memory function.

“The effects of traumatic brain injury are profound,” says Dr. Justin Sanchez, the DARPA program manager for the RAM program.  “They typically result in a reduced ability or capacity to form new memories or even to produce or recall memories.  And when we think about that problem, especially in the context of what our service members have done, we say okay, what can we do for our service members?  The options right now are very few.”

TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY IS A BIG PROBLEM

There are over 270,000 military service members (since 2000) that have been affected by TBI and related injuries.  In addition, there are 1.7 million U.S. civilians each year affected by TBI.  DARPA’s focus is first and foremost on the service members, a point that the research leaders take personally.

“We’re really zeroed in on some of the debilitating effects of traumatic brain injury,” explains Dr. Geoffrey Ling, the director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. “Now, I don’t want you to walk away thinking that this is just a catch phrase from DARPA.  I’m quite serious about this.  I am a war veteran.  I spent two combat tours, both in Iraq and Afghanistan and four more tours over in the war theater just addressing these issues for Admiral Mullen.  So, this is very near and dear to me.”

In terms of treating traumatic brain injury right now, the options aren’t all that vast.  TBI sufferers may be offered counseling or pharmaceuticals.  These treatments might be broad-spectrum, and may not be very targeted in terms of what they can actually restore regarding memory function.

This is ultimately what DARPA is trying to overcome.

“At the end of the day, we would like to help find solutions for the emotional, social, and economic aspects of those injuries,” Dr. Sanchez says.

HOW THEY ARE CHANGING THE GAME

DARPA is taking an entirely new approach to addressing this problem.  It’s a little risky, it’s high tech, but that’s how DARPA does things.

The fundamental idea, Dr. Sanchez explains, is to overcome the deficits in treating TBI by developing new neuroprosethics. These neuroprosthetics will be designed to bridge the gaps in the injured brain in order to help restore that memory function.

So, what are these neuroprosthetics?

“In the context of RAM, we are trying to develop and test a wireless, fully implantable neural interface medical device for human clinical use.  So, it’s a novel medical device that can be interfaced directly with the brain to restore that memory function,” says Dr. Sanchez.

In order to make this a reality, Dr. Sanchez says, they will need to develop a device that will be able to interface with the brain. They will also need to develop new computational models that allow for clinicians to interface with the circuits of the brain that produce the formation of memories (and are also involved in the recall of memories).

BRINGING MEMORY BACK

There many different types of memory, as you may know, but the RAM program is focusing on something that is called declarative memories, or knowledge that can be consciously recalled.  This includes things like events, times, places or even the event context for which a person is engaged in.

So things like going to the store, for example, might be a challenge for someone with TBI.  Even if they’ve been going to the store for years, people living with TBI might not even be able to remember the name of the store, let alone where it’s located.

“This makes a profound impact in a person’s quality of life,” says Dr. Sanchez.  “So, we’re going to start with those very simple and high impact areas of memory function, get those established first as a part of this RAM effort.”

Once DARPA has developed these next generation devices to interface with the brain, they are going to work on encoding.  That is, the process for which signals are sent back to the neural circuits to restore memory function.

“Let’s say there is a disconnect in a circuit that is involved in memory formation.  It is conceptually feasible that we may be able to develop a neuroprosthesis that could help us jump or bridge that gap, or disconnect in the circuit,” Dr. Sanchez explains.

This will be one component of the scientific innovation that occurs on this project.

(U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Josiah Wilson/Released)

(U.S. Defense Department graphic illustration by Josiah Wilson/Released)

DARPA is working with two scientific university teams on this project.  The first is a team from UCLA.  They are directly studying the aspect of traumatic brain injury.  Specifically, a subpart of the brain called the entorhinal cortex, believed to be the gateway of memory formation.  The secondary structure involved in memory formation is called the hippocampus.

“The team at UCLA has a lot of experience with this part of the brain and they’re going to be developing those next generation interfaces that are customized to the entorhinal cortex,” Dr. Sanchez explains.

The second team is a group from the University of Pennsylvania.  This team has a very strong experience and approach to behaviorally modeling declarative memory.  According to Dr. Sanchez, this team is “looking at more of a systems-based approach to understanding the different components of memory”.

THE ETHICS OF MEMORY MANAGEMENT

Okay, so you might be hearing “brains” and “implants” and “memory devices” and thinking, “whoa, wait a minute.  Should you guys even be doing that?”

This is where Dr. William Casebeer comes in.  DARPA has given a lot of thought as to how they can go about systematically canvassing the ethical, legal and social implications of the technologies they develop.  In order to do that, they have a process they call the “Three Cs framework” that articulates some of the dimensions of the ethical and moral issues that arise whenever you develop neurotechnology.

The Three C’s stand for character, consent and consequence.

“The idea of evaluating character-oriented dimensions of technology really is an ancient one that stems from Aristotle and Plato and their examination and articulation of virtue theory,” Dr. Casebeer says.

The first question involves character.  Does [this technological or scientific] development contribute to the flourishing of human beings?  That is, does it enable us to possess the kind of character that enables us to live good lives as people?

The second dimension of evaluation is consent.  Consent related questions, Dr. Casebeer says, are very much oriented towards a consideration of the rights and duties that human beings and other creatures have for each other.  Before I do something with you, do you consent to be involved in that action?

The third C refers to looking at consequences. Does the development of the technology produce “more happiness rather than less happiness“?  Does the pursuit of a particular piece of technology development lead to better consequences in the long run for all sentient creatures involved?

“If we examine those three Cs I think, along all three of them, we see a lot of support for exactly the kind of technology development that Dr. Sanchez will be pursuing in the RAM program,” Dr. Casebeer says.

WHEN THE MIND MEETS THE MACHINE

This process, like any involving the marriage of technology and biology, will take time.  DARPA predicts that the program will take about four years. Medical manufacturers like NeuroPace and Medtronic are going to be helping the project by way of creating the prototype devices that may provide preliminary investigational data sets, as well as testing that could provide seeds for the overall broader mission of the RAM program.

While this is revolutionary, it’s not the first brain implant of its kind.  There are over 100,000 individuals that are already implanted with deep brain simulating devices for things like Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.  The RAM program is unique because it is focused specifically on interfacing with the brain to restore memory function.

That’s what sets DARPA apart.

“This is a truly remarkable period of time,” Dr. Sanchez says. “To think about how we are going to learn about memory in the human brain, to think about the potential for developing those next generation medical neuroprosthetic devices that can provide new options for our injured military personnel, is truly remarkable.”

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Jessica L. Tozer is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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