Even with today’s relatively advanced medical technology, there are still plenty of formidable diseases that remain incurable. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s are one of these chronic conditions, where one is affected by a progressive loss of memory functions, language, disorientation and other behavioral issues. Alzheimer’s is the cause of 60 to 70 percent of cases of dementia, affecting an estimated 45 million people worldwide. Currently, there’s no chemically derived medication available that halts or reverses the progression of this neurodegenerative condition, though there are pharmaceutical drugs that can temporarily help alleviate some of the cognitive symptoms brought on by Alzheimer’s.
But perhaps we’re looking at the problem in the wrong way. Rather than drugging Alzheimer’s patients, American biomedical startup Kernel foresees a different path to treating this chronic illness — by developing an implantable “brain prosthetic” that would send electrical impulses to stimulate the neurons responsible for learning and storage of long-term memories. Such a device would not only help patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, but also those with damaged brain functions stemming from a stroke or brain injury.
Enhancing Human Intelligence
Kernel’s aim is to focus on augmenting human intelligence (HI), rather than creating smart machines. Its goal is to commercialize such a device for clinical use in the near future, based on current research being led by Ted Berger, director of the Center for Neural Engineering at the University of Southern California. For years, Berger and his team have been studying the neurophysiology of memory and learning and translating that into mathematical models that would underpin a new generation of cognitive prostheses.
In particular, their work focuses on a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays an important role in the processing of information, from short-term memories to long-term memories and spatial navigation.
The hippocampus is one of the first areas in the brain to be damaged in those suffering from Alzheimer’s, resulting in the early symptoms of memory loss and disorientation. It’s here that Kernel’s neural prosthetic would be surgically inserted, so that the implant’s electrodes can restore that missing biological functionality, by directly boosting neurons involved in the processing of information that’s coming in and being translated into memories.
The prosthetic would consist of electrodes and a microprocessor to handle computation. When a new task is learned, the ‘input’ pattern of electrical signals being ‘fired’ off by neurons will be encoded by the implanted chip’s electrodes, and converted into the proper ‘output’ signals that would allow that information to be stored in long-term memory, using mathematical models developed by Berger and his colleagues.
“We take these memory codes, enhance them, and put them back into the brain,” Berger told IEEE Spectrum. “If we can do that consistently, then we’ll be ready to go.”
So far, Berger and his team have already successfully tested prototypes of the implant on brain-impaired rats and primates, noting a significant enhancement in their ability to learn and retain new information. Even more fascinating was the discovery that one could implant stored memories in a rat that had no previous knowledge of the test set up by the researchers, allowing it to perform the test on its first try without making a mistake.
While this may bode for some potentially unsettling applications in the future, Kernel’s current focus is on developing something that will help people with damaged brains restore their cognitive functionality.
From neurostimulators that perform deep brain stimulation (DBS) in Parkinson’s patients, to implants to monitor epileptic seizures, Kernel’s brain prosthetic would be only one of a number of emerging neural technologies that eschew the chemically based pharmaceutical approach, embracing instead a new, so-called “electroceutical” approach that would directly zap the nervous system into functioning as it should. As humans live longer, we can only expect more issues associated with rapidly aging population. Electroceuticals could be one effective solution to address this shift in care.
“We’re living longer, so aging problems, and cognitive problems, in particular, are going to be more and more prevalent,” Berger noted. “The cost of a cognitive prosthetic will pale in comparison to taking care of a person with dementia for 20 years.”
Feature Image: Ted Berger