Hate studying? Fret not. Looking for a “Get Smart Quick Scheme?” Look no further. Implantable human memory-on-a-chip is a distinct possibility for the future.
Imagine conversing in fluent Mandarin without ever having heard the language. Imagine fending off an attacker with a series of well-placed chops and kicks worthy of a martial arts grandmaster, though you never even acquired your white belt.
Sound like a sci-fi thriller? In the not-so-distant future, it might become a reality.
Okay, we may not live to experience a Harvard-MBA-dongle plugged into the back of our heads, but today we can already have a decision or two manipulated on our behalf by microchips literally stuck into our grey matter. And, in a decade or two, we may have the ability to bypass tedious years of schooling with the help of a single cranial flash drive.
Thanks to the evolution of brain chips, each and every one of us can become a super brainiac – at least in theory. These cranial flash drives may soon have the ability to make decisions on our behalf, restore lost or impaired memory, or even provide entirely new ones.
So far, implanted memories have only been tested in the brains of primates and rodents – but research groups from leading universities are already setting up experiments involving human volunteers, due to begin within the next two years.
As part of the organizing committee of Israel’s first ever International Brain Technology Conference, BrainTech Israel 2013, we are taking a close look at the way these Matrix-esque brain chips will radically alter our world.
How does it work? The chips generate electrical activity and excite neurons in a specific pattern, akin to the binary code found in computers. Depending on the intensity, length, location and pattern of neuronal excitation, the chip can generate anything from images to data to memories to muscle stimulation. This means you could potentially become an expert on quantum mechanics without ever reading Max Planck, or learn to move like Jagger just by buying a Rolling Stones Memory Chip off the shelves of Target.
Skeptical? The following two experiments seem to suggest that science has begun cracking the code of artificial brain manipulation:
Monkey Chip, Monkey Do
In an experiment at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, chimpanzees had to pick out an image they had previously chosen out of a wider set of pictures. While the chimps were performing the image identification task, their brain activity was recorded using an electronic implant. When task performance reached 75% accuracy, the chimps were given cocaine—a drug known to disrupt cognitive ability.
On drugs, the chimps’ performance decreased by 13%. But, when the neuronal activation pattern was played back in the subjects’ brains using the electronic implant, the decision-making ability completely returned to normal… and at times even improved.
In other words, the brain chip effectively demonstrated that once a memory is formed, it can be successfully restored and efficiently enhanced via neuronal stimulation.
From Mice to Men
In a series of experiments at the RIKEN-MIT Center, scientists recorded a mouse’s brain activity as it was familiarizing itself with a maze (A). The mouse was then transferred to a new maze (B), where it received mild foot shocks in order to create associations of fear.
While the mouse was in Maze B, scientists played back the electric pattern of neuron activation (memories) in their brains that they had recorded from Maze A. When they returned the mouse to Maze A – a shock-free environment – the mouse exhibited the same fear it had developed in Maze B.
By activating a particular sequence of neurons, the scientists had created false hybrid memories.
The researchers behind the two experiments are now working together to initiate similar human trials aimed at recording and generating memories in the part of the brain responsible for memory creation.
Memory to Order
The development of implantable neuronal chips would bring the possibility of “instant know-how” closer to reality. But it could also engender such possibilities as treating Alzheimer’s disease electronically, restoring impaired cognition, enhancing memory and intelligence – all the way to reversing the effects of drugs and alcohol. Judging by what leading scientists in the field are claiming, the era of these possibilities is already here.