Traumatic brain injury (TBI) induces neurological irregularities that can sometimes lead to memory loss. Researchers focus on specific regions of the brain in cases like these, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which play large roles in functioning memory.
In the fall of 2013, a challenge was set forth for neuroscientists in the U.S. to try to develop a device that can be implanted and restore the memories of veterans with brain injuries. The issuer of the challenge was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It offered $40 million in funding to whoever was brave enough to try. On Wednesday, July 9, DARPA announced the two challengers: a team of researchers from UCLA and a second team from UPenn.
UCLA will receive up to $15 million and UPenn will get up to $22.5 million...if their developments meet the requirements DARPA sets forth. They will have to develop and test electronic implantable devices that can both detect memory loss and restore the deficits caused by TBI.
The project to create these "neuroprosthetics" is called the Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program. It aims to alleviate the anguish and pain of memory loss that result from TBI or disease. More than 270,000 military personnel have been diagnosed with the TBI since 2000. Additionally, 1.7 million U.S. civilians are affected yearly.
TBI creates gaps in memories formed before the injury and diminishes the ability to form and hold on to new memories. Recent research found that some forms of memory could be honed with direct brain recording and stimulating. The process allows for real-time reading of what is happening in the brain, and offers promising results; it's a hot area of neuroscience. The scientists working on the DARPA project aim to use this technique, as it has already proven effective.
Using this technique, researchers were recently able to figure out how the brain processes language. They found that the brain breaks down words and sentences and matches them to 12 "sound clusters" it has stored away.
The direct recording technique is also used to help epileptic patients. Doctors implant electrodes in patients' brains and record the activity of specific neurons in memory-implicated regions while the patients perform tasks such as brainteasers or video games. The readings further the understanding of what works, what doesn't, and what really needs to in order for patients to ever overcome brain injuries and disease.
This technique will be used to figure out exactly what is going on in patients with TBI. To fix it, the UCLA team led by Dr. Itzhak Fried, will use the approach of stimulating the entorhinal cortex to remove gaps in memory. Previous researchers from UCLA found a significantly improved memory response by stimulating this region of the brain.
The UPenn research team, led by neuroscientist Michael Kahana, will do something different. It will look at recordings in regions displaying successful memory retention and retrieval and then will try to understand what makes these processes go wrong.
One of the issues in this field of research, and within the RAM project, is the feasibility and the ethics of the work.
"We have to keep reminding ourselves that, no, we are not speaking the brain's secret language-we're doing some very crude stimulating," says Dr. Anthony Ritaccio, a neurosurgeon. "When working with the brain, you have to keep slapping yourself in the face as a reality check; we still understand so little."
The RAM teams will also use animal studies to implement quantitative computer models to understand the processes behind complex memory formation.
The project is part of President Obama's BRAIN Initiative, which sets out to map the brain in 12 years with collaborations across the country and a budget of $4.5 billion.