Category: memory

For the First Time Ever, Scientists Boosted Human Memory With a Brain Implant

A Bionic Memory Boost

With everyone from Elon Musk to MIT to the U.S. Department of Defense researching brain implants, it seems only a matter of time before such devices are ready to help humans extend their natural capabilities. Now, a professor from the University of Southern California (USC) has demonstrated the use of a brain implant to improve the human memory, and the device could have major implications for the treatment of one of the U.S.’s deadliest diseases.

Dong Song is a research associate professor of biomedical engineering at USC, and he recently presented his findings on a “memory prosthesis” during a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington D.C. According to a New Scientist report, the device is the first to effectively improve the human memory.

The Evolution of Brain-Computer Interfaces [INFOGRAPHIC]
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To test his device, Song’s team enlisted the help of 20 volunteers who were having brain electrodes implanted for the treatment of epilepsy.

Once implanted in the volunteers, Song’s device could collect data on their brain activity during tests designed to stimulate either short-term memory or working memory. The researchers then determined the pattern associated with optimal memory performance and used the device’s electrodes to stimulate the brain following that pattern during later tests.

Based on their research, such stimulation improved short-term memory by roughly 15 percent and working memory by about 25 percent. When the researchers stimulated the brain randomly, performance worsened.

As Song told New Scientist, “We are writing the neural code to enhance memory function. This has never been done before.”

A Growing Problem

While a better memory could be useful for students cramming for tests or those of us with trouble remembering names, it could be absolutely life-changing for people affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s.

As Bill Gates noted when announcing plans to invest $100 million of his own money into dementia and Alzheimer’s research, the disease is a multi-level problem that’s positioned to get even worse.

Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, with the vast majority of sufferers over the age of 65. With advances in medicine and healthcare continuously increasing how long we live, that segment of the population is growing dramatically, and by 2030, 20 percent of U.S. citizens are expected to be older than 65.

This increase in the number of potential dementia sufferers can be costly in both a financial and emotional sense. In 2016, the total cost of healthcare and long-term care for those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease was an estimated $236 billion, and according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the more severe a person’s cognitive impairment, the higher the rates of depression in their familial caregivers.

Of course, further testing is required before Song’s device could be approved as a treatment for dementia or Alzheimer’s, but if it is able to help those patients regain even part of their lost memory function, the impact would be felt not only by the patients themselves, but their families and even the economy at large.

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DARPA’s New Brain Device Increases Learning Speed by 40%

Cheap and Non-Invasive

New research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has successfully demonstrated how a non-invasive method of stimulating the brain can boost cognitive performance. Working under DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, scientists from HRL Laboratories in California, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and Soterix Medical in New York tested their brain device on macaques and observed a substantial increase in the monkeys’ ability to quickly perform certain tasks.

Reprogramming the Human Mind: Here’s How We’ll Make Humanity 2.0 [INFOGRAPHIC]
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In their study published, which has been published in the journal Current Biology, the HRL team describes how they used non-invasive transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to stimulate the prefrontal cortex in the macaques. They then prompted the animals to perform a task based on associative learning — learning associations between visual cues and a location — in order to get a reward.

The macaques that wore the tDCS brain device significantly outperformed the control group. The former needed only 12 trials to learn how to immediately get the reward, while the latter needed 21 trials, with the tDCS device accounting for the 40 percent increase in learning speed, according to the researchers.

“In this experiment, we targeted the prefrontal cortex with individualized non-invasive stimulation montages,” lead HRL researcher Praveen Pilly said in a statement. “That is the region that controls many executive functions, including decision-making, cognitive control, and contextual memory retrieval. It is connected to almost all the other cortical areas of the brain, and stimulating it has widespread effects.”

Based on the results of their study, the researchers say the increased learning speed was caused by the modulated connectivity between brain areas and not the rate at which neurons fired.

All in the Mind

The ability to increase one’s brain function almost instantaneously is no doubt appealing. As such, the concept has been a fixture of science fiction for decades (see: “Flowers for Algernon,” “Limitless”), but advancements in technology seem to be bringing us closer to a future in which quickly leveling-up intelligence is a real possibility.

In addition to this DARPA device, researchers from Boston University have developed their own non-invasive method to improve learning using high-definition transcranial alternating current stimulation (HD-tACS). However, the DARPA researchers claim their device is cheap, which may make it more appealing than other technologies like it.

Simply making people smarter is not the sole purpose of this type of research. A potentially more immediate application of DARPA’s brain device is the treatment of people suffering from neural degeneration that causes a loss of memory function.

As the team noted in their study, “These results are consistent with the idea that tDCS leads to widespread changes in brain activity and suggest that it may be a valuable method for cheaply and non-invasively altering functional connectivity in humans.”

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New Research Shows how the Brain Processes our Experiences

Cataloging Experiences

Following studies into how the brain helps us to navigate and make decisions, researchers are now exploring how the brain organizes experiences.

A team of neuroscientists from New York University (NYU) sought to observe how memories are transferred over time. Specifically, they wanted to see if the brain would show similar or shared features of different experiences, and understand how this process happens.

They conducted an experiment in which subjects would be shown a series of objects on a computer screen, with each object paired with one of four pictures showing different locations. Afterwards, subjects were tested on their ability to match the objects with the locations; once immediately after the experiment concluded, and again a week later. During the test, the team observed the subjects’ neural patterns associated with individual memories.

The results of this study revealed no overlap in the neural patterns tied to the memories of the object-scene pairings in the test conducted shortly after the experiment. However, during testing a week later, there was considerable overlap in two specific parts of the brain: the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC).

“It is as if in order to make sense of the world, the brain re-organizes individual distinct experiences into information clusters — perhaps signaling the emergence of conceptual knowledge,” explains Lila Davachi, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology. To clarify, the brain organized the subject’s experiences based on the overlap that occurred — the more that the neural patterns overlapped, or had in common, the more likely it was they would be grouped together.

Diminishing Patterns

The discovery didn’t end there. The team also noticed that patterns corresponding to details in certain memories became more diminished during organization. This is particularly concerning, as it suggests key details are slowly lost or forgotten after the brain sorts our experiences.

“This aspect of the research points to the tension between ‘good memory’ and learning–if we remember each individual experience as it was encountered, are we able to effectively learn about the underlying regularities across experiences?” asked doctoral recipient and study co-author Alexa Tompary.

This study could shed some light on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, two conditions that affect memory over time, though the latter may only block access to memories instead of destroying them. Over 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, while 47 million people worldwide live with dementia. If the study’s observations on diminished neural patterns can help prevent these conditions or lead to better treatment, millions of lives could be saved or improved and many more cherished memories might be left intact.

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Study Reveals How the Brain Creates “Maps” to Help Us Navigate Familiar Locations

Your Brain Says, “Turn Right”

Your brain’s ability to help you navigate your favorite grocery store isn’t as simple as you may think. In fact, it first involves a series of complex calculations that result in a “map” the brain can refer to in the future.

This new discovery comes from Aaron Wilber, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Florida State University. He wanted to better understand how a person goes from seeing an area to creating a mental image used for navigation.

“We have not had a clear understanding of what happens when you step out of a subway tunnel, take in your surroundings, and have that moment where you instantly know where you are,” Wilber explained in a press release. “Now we’re getting closer to understanding that.”

His team’s findings have been published in the September issue of Neuron.

A part of the brain known as the parietal cortex is at the center of this research. It uses the various senses to gather information, and that information is then referenced to determine which actions a person should take. These resulting actions are “recorded” and turned into a memory, which acts as a map the brain can use to get from one familiar place to another.

By recording activity in a rat’s brain as the animal performed certain actions, Wilber’s team discovered that clusters of cells — and not just individual cells —work together to form these map memories. When the same action was performed later, the same patterns of activity were observed.

“These different modules are talking to each other and seem to be changing their connections just like single cells change their connections,” Wilber explained. “But now we’re talking about large groups of cells becoming wired up in different ways as you learn and remember how to make a series of actions as you go about your day-to-day business.”

Dreams and Alzheimer’s

Wilber’s team also uncovered something interesting about dreams through the course of their research. When they recorded the activity in the rat’s brain while it slept, they discovered that the rat replayed the same actions and patterns while dreaming, only at a rate nearly four times faster than the one observed during its waking hours.

Reprogramming the Human Mind: Here’s How We’ll Make Humanity 2.0 [INFOGRAPHIC]
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“We think these fast-forward ‘dreams’ we observe in rats could explain why in humans when you dream and wake up, you think a lot more time passed than actually has because your dreams happen at high speed or fast forward,” said Wilber. “Maybe dreams happen in fast forward because that would make it easier to create new connections in your brain as you sleep.”

More work needs to be done before we can fully understand how dreams factor into our ability to remember past actions. Thankfully, Wilber recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health, which he plans to use to investigate why the parietal cortex’s ability to function is less effective in patients with Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases. Ultimately, Wilber’s research, as well as that of others, could lead to better treatment for the nearly 5 million people in the U.S. alone who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

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How to Make AI Forget

Forgetting is Tricky Business

We all know what it’s like to forget something. A loved one’s birthday. A childhood memory. Even people capable of extraordinary memory feats – say, memorising the order of a deck of cards in less than 20 seconds – will still forget where they left their keys. People, it seems, are never in complete control of their memories.

Forgetting is a tricky business, both for humans and for artificial intelligence (AI), and researchers are exploring the idea of robot memory in many different ways.

Image Source: NASA/B. Stafford/J. Blair/R. Geeseman

This raises not only technical issues, but concerns related to privacy, law and ethics. Imagine if your household robot witnessed you having a sneaky cigarette despite you promising your spouse that you had quit smoking? What about if they saw you commit a murder?

It’s an important question: who, if anyone, should have the power to make a robot forget what it witnessed? But first, researchers need to work out the best way to make AI to forget in the first place.

Why Do People Forget?

A popular metaphor to explain why people forget is that our brains become full, and thus we forget things to “make space”.

Yet some people have a rare condition called “hyperthymesia”, which allows them to remember almost every detail of their lives. This suggests that the idea of “fullness” is not the complete story.

So if we don’t forget things to make room for new memories, then why do we forget? One explanation is that memories help us understand the world, rather than merely to remember it. In this way, we seem to retain memories that are useful, valuable and relevant, while forgetting information of lower value.

For example, some studies suggest that people can be better at remembering conflicting information than repetitive information. Other factors include the importance and novelty of the event, as well as our emotions and mood at the time of the experience. Consider September 11, 2001 – many of us remember vividly where we were and what we were doing on that day.

How Do Robots Forget?

Memory in computers is typically used to describe both its capacity to store information subject to recall, as well as the physical components of the computer in which such information is stored.

For example, a computer’s working memory “forgets” data when it is no longer needed for a task, freeing up computational resources for other tasks.

This also applies to AI, but while forgetting something might cause us frustration, it is the way in which we forget that makes people still superior to AI. Machine learning algorithms in particular are poor at knowing when to keep old information and when to discard outdated information.

For example, connectionist AI (AI that often uses neural networks modelled on the structure of the brain) faces several problems related to “forgetting”. These include over-fitting, which is when a learning machine stores overly detailed information from past experiences, hindering its ability to generalise and predict future events.

Another problem is “catastrophic forgetting”. Researchers are trying to build artificial neural networks that can appropriately adjust to new information without abruptly forgetting what they learned before.

Finally, sometimes the neurons of an artificial neural network adopt undesirable activation patterns early in the learning process, damaging the future learning ability of the AI.

An alternative approach to storing memories in robots is symbolic memory representations where knowledge is represented by logical facts (“birds fly”, “Tweety is a bird”, so therefore, “Tweety can fly”). These highly structured human-created representations can be easily deleted, just like deleting a file on a computer.

These memories can range in fidelity from raw sensorimotor data (a recording from a camera) to logical facts stored in a knowledge base (“Christmas Day is the 25th of December”).

What Should Robots Forget?

Understanding how our brains decide what is worth remembering and what is worth forgetting is important for creating better AI.

Just like people, AI should remember important and useful information, while forgetting low value, irrelevant knowledge. However, determining what is relevant and valuable may include factors besides the task at hand, such as questions of ethics, law and privacy.

Chatbots make medical diagnoses, smart home devices monitor our movements and security robots perform patrols with videos cameras and thermal imaging. That’s a lot of stored data.

Amazon’s home assistant Echo, for example, is a voice-controlled hands-free speaker that is always listening for a command prompt. Arkansas police recently demanded that Amazon turn over information apparently collected from a murder suspect’s Echo.

Alternatively, consider the AI in sex bots. Should sex bots remember or forget their clients, and what those clients did with them? Who owns the robot’s data, and who can view it and delete it?

When it comes to memories, deciding when a robot should forget is a profoundly human challenge.

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New Research Suggests Memory Loss in Alzheimer’s Patients May be Reversible

A Targeted Approach

New research from a team at MIT indicates symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) affecting patient’s memories may be reversible. AD causes memory loss by setting up genetic “blockades” formed when the enzyme HCAC2 condenses the genes of the brain responsible for memory. Eventually, those genes become useless; unexpressed, the genes are unable to cause the formation of new memories or retrieval of existing ones.

Clearly, blocking HCAC2 in the brain is an obvious fix; however, it has to date been impossible, in that all prior attempts have negatively affected the internal organs which require other enzymes in the histone deacetylase (HDAC) family for normal function. Researchers at MIT have now found something they hope might be the answer: LED lights which they use to prevent HCAC2 alone from binding with Sp3, its genetic blockade formation partner in crime (and Alzheimer’s).

Image Credit: jarmoluk/Pixabay
This research was spurred by the 2007 discovery that blocking HDAC activity in mice reversed memory loss. Human cells contain around one dozen forms of HDAC, and the team found later that it is HDAC2 that causes the memory-linked gene blockade, and that HDAC2 levels are elevated in Alzheimer’s patients.

Finding The Right Match

The trick was determining a way to target HDAC2 specifically without affecting HDAC1 levels and hurting white blood cell production as a result. To do this, the team analyzed postmortem brain samples of both healthy people and those with Alzheimer’s disease, assessing gene expression data. They found that there were more than 2,000 genes at levels that nearly matched HDAC2 levels. They then needed to test the best candidates; doing this allowed them to isolate the Sp3 gene.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
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“This is exciting because for the first time we have found a specific mechanism by which HDAC2 regulates synaptic gene expression,” Director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and study lead author Li-Huei Tsai explained to MIT News. “If we can remove the blockade by inhibiting HDAC2 activity or reducing HDAC2 levels, then we can restore expression of all these genes necessary for learning and memory.”

This AD research is in the early stages yet, having only been conducted with mice. No usable remedy for humans will be forthcoming for some time, but even so, this is one of the most promising semblances of a cure for Alzheimer’s to date, with the potential to help more than 5.5 million Americans and almost 44 million worldwide.

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Neuroscientists Say Forgetting Things May Be an Essential Part of Our Brain Function

The Usefulness of Forgetting

We’ve all had moments of forgetfulness, and not infrequently the act of forgetting about something can have a negative impact on our day — or even our lives. Some even consider being forgetful to be a sign of damage in the brain, particularly the area tasked with storing and retaining information. While this may be true in the case of memory disorders, Canadian neuroscientists from the University of Toronto propose that the typical moments of forgetfulness with which most of us are familiar are actually the brain’s way of making us smarter — and that those moments may even make our lives better.

In a study published in the journal Neuron, researchers offered an alternative hypothesis as to why the brain purposefully works to forget information. Though not entirely a new field of study, the neurobiology of forgetting has been relatively unexamined, as co-author Blake Richards explained during an interview with NPR’s Andrea Hsu.

“Generally, the focus for the last few decades in neuroscience has been the question of how do the cells in our brains change themselves in order to store information and remember things.”

Their research found that the brain’s ability to store huge amounts of information can often be hindered by keeping memories that may be irrelevant for our everyday existence. “In fact, I would argue they’re not just irrelevant, but they can be detrimental to living our daily lives,” Richards said. Information that isn’t necessary for us to evolve and survive, then, isn’t necessary for the brain to retain.

“Our memories ultimately are there to help us make decisions, to act in the world in an intelligent manner,” Richards went on to explain. “Evolution cares about whether or not you are an individual who’s making appropriate decisions in the environment to maximize your chances of survival.”

Memory and Artificial Intelligence

Researchers argue that forgetting is actually a function of memory. Ironic, right? But when you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense.

“[W]hen the goal of memory is to help you make intelligent decisions in a complex, changing world, then the best memory system will be a memory system that forgets some stuff. So a healthy, properly functioning memory system is one that does engage in some degree of forgetting.”

Much of Richard’s work on memory and forgetfulness is thanks to his application of theories on artificial intelligence (AI) and how the brain learns. He said that in the world of AI there’s a phenomenon called over-fitting, where a machine ends up storing so much information that it hinders its ability to make intelligent decisions.

Richards hopes that by understanding the neurobiology of forgetting, we’ll be able to design AI systems capable of interacting with the world and making decisions the same way human beings do. Luckily, there are many studies currently focused on trying to make AI systems — or artificial neural networks — behave like human brains. One crucial aspect we’re still working on is how to facilitate memory development in AI. By understanding the nuances of human memory, it may be possible to design AI systems that distinguish between information that’s trivial — and what’s necessary for survival.

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Researchers Have Discovered a Way to Potentially Erase Unwanted Memories

A New Hypothesis

Perhaps the most disruptive aspect of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety-related disorders is the role of “weak” or incidental sensory data. Because this data is converted into a long term memory along with the stronger, more traumatic details, it can piggyback onto the trauma and act as a trigger for the negative feelings associated with it. This results in seemingly innocuous stimuli causing a stress response.

“If you are walking in a high-crime area and you take a shortcut through a dark alley and get mugged, and then you happen to see a mailbox nearby, you might get really nervous when you want to mail something later on,” explains Samuel Schacher, a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).

When Schacher studied this phenomenon along with other researchers at CUMC and McGill University, the team found that a long-held belief about it — that both the incidental data and significant information were processed in the same way in the brain — may be inaccurate.

Through experiments on a marine snail called an Aplysia, the researchers concluded that the incidental data and the significant data used unique proteins to form their connections to the motor neuron. Because of this, the researchers found they could block one type of protein without affecting the other, thus eliminating the connection formed by the incidental data without affecting the one formed by the significant data.

Using Schacher’s mugging as an example, this would mean researchers could remove a person’s fear of mailboxes while letting them retain their memory of the mugging, which might be useful in preventing them from entering a similar situation in the future or for recalling the event for criminal proceedings.

Better Memories

According to the National Center for PTSD, the condition affects an estimated 7 to 8 percent of Americans at some point in their lives, and the chances of women developing the condition are more than twice as high as men: 10.4 percent compared to 5 percent. By removing the memories that trigger breakdowns or flashbacks, such as the mailbox, the lives of PTSD sufferers could be improved.

Reprogramming the Human Mind: Here’s How We’ll Make Humanity 2.0 [INFOGRAPHIC]
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The ability to selectively erase memories could be useful for a number of problems beyond PTSD, too. For example, drug addicts whose cravings are caused by apparently random stimuli could be treated to no longer respond to that stimuli.

In addition to opening up the potential for us to erase memories, a better understanding of how our minds store what we experience could also allow us to enhance our memory capabilities. This could be done through selective electrical brain stimulation, brain implants, or by memory exercises. Ultimately, the more we can learn about the various functions of our brains, including memory storage, the more potential we have to manipulate them, ushering in a new age in human evolution.

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A New Study Reveals How the Brain “Sees” Faces

How Our Brains “See”

It’s common knowledge that our vision is determined by how our eyes takes in light and color, sending these stimuli as signals to the brain, which are then processed and rendered into an image. But how exactly does the brain process what the eyes pick up into composite images? A study by researchers from the California Institute of Technology is the first to provide a full and simple explanation of how this process works, and they started by examining how the brain recognizes human faces.

“We’ve cracked the brain’s code for facial identity,” author Doris Tsao from CalTech told New Scientist. Their study, published in the journal Cell, looked at face-recognition function in the brains of macaque monkeys.

They identified individual brain cells that work together to create an infinite range of facial images by encoding 50 different dimensions of a face, such as its shape, the size of and distances between eyes, skin texture, and other features. By inserting electrodes into three patches of these so-called “face cells” in the brains of the macaques, Tsao and colleague Steven Le Chang were able to record the activity of 205 neurons.

Image credit: Doris Tsao/Cell
Image credit: Doris Tsao/Cell

The Brain’s Imaging Powers

By showing 2,000 images of human faces to the macaques, they discovered that each face cell’s view of the face was different, but when combined, a clear composite image was produced. In order to see what these monkeys saw, the researchers developed an algorithm that tracked the face cell feedback in their brains.

This discovery could extend to research into how the brain retains memories of facial images and associates these with specific individuals. Previous work by researchers from the Allen Institute for Brain Science have identified individual cells in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, responsible for remembering the faces of people — the so-called “Jennifer Aniston cells.”

“Tsao’s work provides the first specific hypothesis for how the response of face cells in the cortex can be utilized by cells in the hippocampus to form memories of individuals we’ve seen before,” Ueli Rutishauser, from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told New Scientist.

The study could also provide insight into how the brain forms other images, too: “Our work suggests that other objects could be encoded by analogous metric coordinate systems,” the authors wrote.

Another potential application of the research into how the brain processes memories of people’s faces would be in the development of treatments for memory-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. The applications could extend beyond humans, too: such work could also help to improve the image recognition abilities of artificial neural networks.

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Timing May Be Everything When Using Electrical Brain Stimulation to Boost Your Memory

The first time I heard that shooting electrical currents across your brain can boost learning, I thought it was a joke.

But evidence is mounting. According to a handful of studies, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), the poster child of brain stimulation, is a bona fide cognitive booster: By directly tinkering with the brain’s electrical field, some research has found that tDCS enhances creativity, bolsters spatial and math learning and even language aquisition — sometimes weeks after the initial zap.

For those eager to give their own brains a boost, this is good news. Various communities have sprung up to share tips and tricks on how to test the technique on themselves, often using self-rigged stimulators powered by 9-volt batteries.

Scientists and brain enthusiasts aren’t the only people interested. The military has also been eager to support projects involving brain stimulation with the hope that the technology could one day be used to help soldiers suffering from combat-induced memory loss.

But here’s the catch: the end results are inconsistent at best. While some people swear by the positive effects anecdotally, others report nothing but a nasty scalp burn from the electrodes.

In a meta-analysis covering over 20 studies, a team from Australia found no significant effects of tDCS on memory. Similar disparities pop up for other brain stimulation techniques. It’s not that brain stimulation isn’t doing anything — it just doesn’t seem to be doing something consistently across a diverse population. So what gives?

It looks like timing is everything.

When the Zap Comes Is Crucial

We all have good days when your brain feels sharp and bad days when the “brain fog” never lifts. This led scientists to wonder: because electrical stimulation directly regulates the activity of the brain’s neural networks, what if it gives them a boost when they’re faltering, but conversely disrupts their activity when already performing at peak?

In a new study published in “Current Biology,” researchers tested the idea using the most direct type of brain stimulation — electrodes implanted into the brain. Compared to tDCS, which delivers currents through electrodes on the scalp, implanted ones allow much higher precision in controlling which brain region to target and when.

Blue dots indicate overall electrode placement in the new study from the University of Pennsylvania; the yellow dot (top-right corner) is the electrode used to stimulate the subject’s brain to increase memory performance. Image Credit: Joel Stein and Youssef Ezzyat, CC BY-ND

The team collaborated with a precious resource: epilepsy patients who already have electrodes implanted into their hippocampi and surrounding areas. These brain regions are crucial for memories about sequences, spaces and life events. The electrodes serve a double purpose: they both record brain activity and deliver electrical pulses.

The researchers monitored the overall brain activity of 102 epilepsy patients as they memorized 25 lists of a dozen unrelated words and tried to recall them later on.

For each word, the researchers used the corresponding brain activity pattern to train a type of software called a classifier. In this way, for each patient the classifier eventually learned what types of brain activity preceded successfully remembering a word, and what predicted failed recall. Using this method, the scientist objectively classified a “foggy” brain state as the pattern of brain activity that preceded an inability to remember the word, while the pattern of activity common before successfully recalling is characteristic of being on the ball.

Next, in the quarter of patients for whom the classifier performed above chance, the researchers zapped their brains as they memorized and recalled a new list of words. As a control, they also measured memory performance without any stimulation, and the patients were asked whether they could tell when the electrodes were on (they couldn’t).

Here’s what they found: when the zap came before a low, foggy brain state, the patients scored roughly 12 to 13 percent higher than usual on the recall task. But if they were already in a high-performance state, quite the opposite occurred. Then the electrical pulse impaired performance by 15 to 20 percent and disrupted the brain’s encoding activity — that is, actually making memories.

Moving Beyond Random Stimulation

This study is notably different from those before. Rather than indiscriminately zapping the brain, the researchers showed that the brain state at the time of memory encoding determines whether brain stimulation helps or hinders. It’s an invaluable insight for future studies that try to tease apart the effects of brain stimulation on memory.

The next big challenge is to incorporate these findings into brain stimulation trials, preferably using noninvasive technologies. The finding that brain activity can predict recall is promising and builds upon previous research linking brain states to successful learning. These studies may be leveraged to help design “smart” brain stimulators.

For example: picture a closed-loop system, where a cap embedded with electrodes measures brain activity using EEG or other methods. Then the data go to a control box to determine the brain state. When the controller detects a low functioning state, it signals the tDCS or other stimulator to give a well-timed zap, thus boosting learning without explicit input from the user.

Of course, many questions remain before such a stimulator becomes reality. What are the optimal number and strength of electrical pulses that best bolster learning? Where should we place the electrodes for best effect? And what about unintended consequences? A previous study found that boosting learning may actually impair a person’s ability to automate that skill — quickly and effortlessly perform it — later on. What other hidden costs of brain stimulation are we missing?

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea of zapping my brain. But this new study and the many others sure to follow give me more confidence: if I do take the leap into electrical memory enhancement, it’ll be based on data, not on anecdotes.

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New Memory Storage Tech Is 1,000 Times Faster at Processing Information

Powerful Memory

Whether it’s our phone, tablet, or laptop, we’ve all come across problems with our hardware’s ability to store information or the time it takes to access that information. As technology continues to break limits of computer storage in access speed and capacity, we are getting to wield more powerful tools than ever before. The latest computing tool is the 3D XPoint, a new-generation memory technology that Intel and Micron Technology have kept under wraps since 2012.

The 3D XPoint is a solid-state drive that is getting buzz for its breakneck speeds in accessing memory. The technology is the marriage of RAM and flash storage, as it’s four times denser than traditional RAM. Conveniently, it can hold information even when it’s turned off, unlike other volatile storage sources. When compared to other forms of information storage, like NAND and DRAM, 3D XPoint is almost 1,000 times faster at reading and writing information.

This means the new-generation memory technology will power the next series of computers. The Optane SSD DC P4800X will be Intel’s first foray with the new tech.  The 375 GB solid-state drive comes at a cost of $1520. Intel’s second product to use the technology will come at a much more affordable cost at $44, equipped with a 16 GB memory solution.

Enhanced Efficiency

This technology isn’t built to entirely replace your computer’s hard drive — rather it’s there to work alongside it. The Optane memory can increase productivity by loading various applications and software at almost 600 percent of original speeds.

Whether you’re a gamer or a professional, the services that you require probably take up a lot of your computing power. With the 3D XPoint technology, we will see far more efficiency in accomplishing whatever we have in mind, whether that’s streaming youtube or developing the next big thing.

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New Research Shows That Babies’ Blood Can Improve Memory

Plasma of Youth

Researchers from Stanford University in California may have stumbled upon a potential elixir of youth. The team, led by Joseph Castellano, found that blood from babies’ blood contains anti-aging and memory-enhancing potential. While it might sound like the premise of a horror movie, there’s no need to worry: no infants were harmed in the research, as the blood was collected from their umbilical cords.

The rejuvenating effects of infants’ blood is the subject of a study the researchers published in the journal Nature. Similar to a previous study linking memory and cognitive enhancing effects to teenager’s blood, Castellano and his team believe that umbilical blood may have the ability to rejuvenate memory. 

4 Scientifically Proven Ways to Help Reverse Aging
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“Here we show that human cord plasma treatment revitalizes the hippocampus and improves cognitive function in aged mice,” the researchers wrote. They gave three groups of mice, each about 50 years old in human years, human blood injections. The mice were split into three groups, each receiving plasma from different sources. One group received the umbilical cord plasma, the second got plasma from young people roughly aged 22, while the third got plasma from people about 66 years old.

The mice infused with plasma from cord blood showed the greatest improvements, demonstrating faster learning sense and better maze navigation. This indicated enhanced activity in the mice’s hippocampi, the memory and learning center of the brain.

The Fight Against Aging

Castellano and his colleagues believe that the effects come from a protein found in plasma. Umbilical cord blood is rich in a protein called TIMP2, which consequently declines as people age. This explains why the plasma from young people also demonstrated some rejuvenating ability, but plasma from older adults did not.

TIMP2 has also been known to limit the growth of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases, believed to be involved in the development of Alzheimer’s. How TIMP2 works is still not clear; that being said, researchers are very interested in studying its potential for treating age-related cognitive disorders, particularly Alzheimer’s. It’ll take time before any such treatment could be developed from this, however.

“If and when TIMP2 looks promising as a possible therapy, I’d imagine there would be a great deal of interest,” Castellano said. “As the aging population grows each year, I think we’ll increasingly need to look for ways to limit the harmful effects of aging.”

Indeed, there is now a trend among scientists to consider aging a disease that needs to be — and can be — treated. Researchers are looking for potential ways to keep aging at bay, or at the very least, to keep its degenerative effects in check. These efforts are varied, from using stem cells to gene and cellular manipulation, and even using bacteria. All of which are avenues made possible by improved technologies that allow for better medical research and treatment.

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We May Be Completely Wrong About How Our Brains Form Memories

One Experience, Two Memories

Scientists have long believed the human brain stores memories following a two-step process. Memories are first stored in the brain’s “short-term” memory, and are later moved to the “long-term” memory. New research from the Riken-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics have proven that this may not be the case. Their study, published in the journal Science, can change the way we approach neurodegenerative diseases that attack memory.

Previously, scientists thought that the memory is first stored as a short-term location in the brain’s hippocampus. It then gets converted into a long-term memory, and stored in the brain’s cortex. Now, the new study from Riken-MIT revealed that the brain simultaneously makes two memories: one is a present, albeit temporary, version and the other version goes into long-term — even lifetime — storage.

“This was surprising,” research director Susumu Tonegawa told BBC News. “This is contrary to the popular hypothesis that has been held for decades. This is a significant advance compared to previous knowledge, it’s a big shift.”

Retrieving Lost Memories

The U.S. and Japanese team of researchers arrived at this conclusion after conducting experiments on mice. They observed specific memories forming, as a cluster of connected brain cells, after a shocking stimulus. The researchers were then able to switch memories on and off, using light beamed into the brain which can control individual neural activity.

If the researchers turned off the short-term memory in the hippocampus, the mice forgot about the shock. But when they turned on the long-term memory stored in the cortex, the mice were able to remember — despite the long-term memory being infrequently used in the first few days after its formation in the cortex. Researchers also discovered that if the connection between the cortex and the long-term memory “bank” gets blocked, those memories get blocked, too.

The researchers are hopeful their study can provide new insights into the fight against diseases that induce memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. “Understanding how this happens may be relevant in brain disease patients,” Tonegawa said, who previously discovered that mice with Alzheimer’s could still form memories, the memories were just rendered inaccessible.

Cambridge University researcher Amy Milton, who wasn’t part of the study, found the results not only  surprising but “beautiful, elegant and extremely impressive.” She told BBC News: “This is [just] one study, but I think they’ve got a strong case, I think it’s convincing and I think this will tell us about how memories are stored in humans as well.”

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New Research Shows How ”Fear Memories” Alter the Mind

Memory Formation

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is experienced by 7.8 percent of American adults, according to the National Center for PTSD. PTSD can manifest after the experience of a significantly traumatic event, such as living through a natural disaster, life-threatening accidents, sexual assault, or combat.

Not all who survive a horrible trauma develop PTSD. For example, children can develop the disorder, but are less likely to than adults, especially if they are under 10 years old at the time that the trauma is experienced. Scientists have been working to find out what causes PTSD to begin with. To study this, researchers from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the Garvan Institute organized an experiment using mice.

The researchers wanted to see if how the memory was formed had an impact on whether PTSD developed. They employed quick shocks to the feet of the mice to see if the rapid, violent stimulus would allow a full memory to form.

Disconnected Fear

The results of the study suggest that the mice were able to form a memory based on the fear induced, but not a complete picture of what occurred. Some of the details of the painful event were never included in the mice’s fear-related memories.

The researchers, including Bryce Vissel from UTS, related this to the effects of PTSD. One of the symptoms of PTSD is that suffers will re-experience the trauma, which can be triggered by a seemingly innocuous stimulus. For example, returned soldiers could be triggered by a harmless loud bang. Vissel said that this might occur because the triggering memories were formed without sufficient details to allow the individual to distinguish the traumatic situation from an innocuous one.

“This could be significant because animals rely on their memory of where, when, and how the traumatic event occurred to determine when they should be fearful in future,” Vissel said in a press release. “If they form an ambiguous memory that lacks the detail necessary to tell different environments or situations apart, they may trigger the traumatic memory in a variety of inappropriate circumstances.”

These results, which were published in the journal Learning and Memory, suggest that symptoms of PTSD could be caused not only by the way we recall memories, but how those memories are made in the first place. Looking at memory formation and how that relates to PTSD could lead to new treatments for the condition. However, results in mice are not always the same in humans, and further study would have to be done on how this might be applied to humans.

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Becoming Immortal: The Future of Brain Augmentation and Uploaded Consciousness

If you’ve ever worked with a virtualized computer, or played a video game ROM from a long-defunct console on your new PC, you understand the concept already: a mind is simply software, and the brain, the hardware it runs on. Imagine a day when your neurons, the matter that forms your mind, are transferred to a machine and their counterparts in your skull are disabled.

Are you still you? Imagine a future of mind uploading, whole-brain emulation, and the full understanding of the connectome. Now, imagine neuroscientists even discover a way to resurrect the dead, to upload the mind of those who have gone before, our ancestors, Socrates, Einstein?

In a paper published in Plos One in early December, scientists detailed how they were able to elicit a pattern similar to the living condition of the brain when exposing dead brain tissue to chemical and electrical probes. Authors Nicolas Rouleau, Nirosha J. Murugan, Lucas W. E. Tessaro, Justin N. Costa, and Michael A. Persinger (the same Persinger of the God-Helmet studies) wrote about this breakthrough,

This was inferred by a reliable modulation of frequency-dependent microvolt fluctuations. These weak microvolt fluctuations were enhanced by receptor-specific agonists and their precursors[…] Together, these results suggest that portions of the post-mortem human brain may retain latent capacities to respond with potential life-like and virtual properties.

Imagine the infinite human future(s) of mind uploading, life after death, immortality. How does it begin? Would you still be you when we upload your mind? Let’s imagine the journey as we explore the future of what brain augmentation might look like.

(Un)Becoming Human

If you put a tiny chip in your brain which is 1,000 times more powerful cognitively than your biological brain, will you still be you?

Let’s say you put a tiny chip in your brain to enhance your memory capacity, analytical thinking, creativity and so forth. What if the capability of that chip was 1,000 times greater than that of your biological brain?

Let’s say you replace a single neuron in your brain with one that functions thousands of times faster than its biological counterpart.

Are you still you? You’d probably argue that you are, and even a significant speed bump in a single neuron is likely to go largely unnoticed by your conscious mind.

Now, you replace a second neuron.

Are you still you? Again, yes. You still feel like yourself. You still have the continuity of experience that typically defines individuality. You probably still don’t notice a thing, and indeed, with only a couple of overachieving neurons, there wouldn’t be much to notice.

So, let’s ramp it up. You replace a million neurons in your brain with these new, speedy versions, gradually over the course of several months. Sounds like a bunch, right? Not really; you’ve still only replaced 0.001% of your brain’s natural neurons by most estimates.

Are you still you?

You may find you’re reading books a teensy bit faster now, and comprehending them more easily. An abstract math concept (say, the Monty Hall problem) that once confused you now begins to make some sense. You’re still very much human, though.

You stubbed your toe this morning due to poor reflexes, resulting from a lack of sleep. You briefly felt lonely for a moment. That cute cashier turned you on as much as ever.

But why stop there? You’re feeling pretty good. You feel the tug of something greater calling you. Is it the curiosity, the siren call of improving one’s own intelligence? You embark on a neurological enhancement regimen of two billion fancy new neurons every month for a year.

After this time, you’ve got on the order of 24 billion artificial neurons in your head, or about a quarter of your brain.

Are you still you?

Your feelings and emotions are still intact, as the new neurons don’t somehow erase them; they just process them faster. Or they don’t, depending upon your preference. About half-way through this year, you began noticing profound perceptual changes.

You’ve developed a partially eidetic memory. Your head is awash in curiosity and wonder about the world, and you auto-didactically devour Wikipedia articles at a rapid clip. Within weeks you’ve attained a PhD-level knowledge of twenty subjects, effortlessly. You have a newfound appreciation for music – not just classical, but all genres. All art becomes not just a moving experience, but an experience embedded in a transcendental web of associations with other, far-removed concepts.

Synesthesia doesn’t begin to cover what you’re experiencing. But here’s the thing; it’s not overwhelming, not to your enhanced, composite brain and supercharged mind. Maybe you’ve subjected yourself to dimethyltriptamine or psilocybin before, and experienced a fraction of this type of perception. But this is very different. It feels so very soft and natural, like sobering up after a long night out.

You reason (extraordinarily quickly at this point), that since you don’t seem to have lost any of your internal experience, you should seek the limit or its limitlessness, and replace the rest of it. After all, at this point, everyone else is, too.

It’s getting harder to find work for someone who’s only a quarter-upgraded. Over the next three years you continually add new digital neurons as your biological ones age, change, and die out.

Are you still you? Following this, you are a genius by all traditional measures. Only the most advanced frontiers of mathematics and philosophy give you pause. Everything you’ve ever experienced, every thought that was ever recorded in your brain (biological or otherwise) is available for easy access in an instant.

You became proficient in every musical instrument, just for the hell of it. Oh sure, you still had to practice; approximately ten minutes for each instrument. You’re still a social creature, though, and as such, you still experience sadness, love, nostalgia, and all other human emotions. But as with a note played on a Stradivarius violin as opposed to a simple electronic function generator, your emotions now have such depth, so many overtones. Your previous unenhanced self could not have comprehended them. You are a god, an evolved human with the curiosity of a child. Though never religious, the feeling of a connectedness, a spiritual cosmism inhabits your complex mind. It is at once a bodylessness, an understanding of the universe, and again the acceptance of all ideas that are always open to revision.

Years pass. The same medical technology that allowed your neurons to be seamlessly replaced, aided and accelerated by a planet full of supersavants, has replaced much of your biological body as well. You’re virtually immortal. Only virtually, of course, because speeding toward Earth at a ludicrous velocity is a comet the size of Greenland. There is general displeasure that the Earth will be destroyed (and just after we got smart and finally cleaned her up!), but there’s a distinct lack of existential terror.

Everyone will be safe, because they are leaving. How does a civilization, even a very clever one, evacuate billions of people from a planet in the space of years? It builds some very large machines that circle the Sun, and it uploads everyone to these machines.

Uploads? People? Why sure, by now everyone has 100% electronic minds. These minds are simply software; in fact, they always were. Only now, they’re imminently accessible, and more importantly, duplicable.

Billions of bits of minds of people are beamed across the solar system to where the computers and their enormous solar panels float, awaiting their guests. Of course, just as with your neuronal replacements all those years ago, this is a gradual process. As neurons are transferred, their counterparts in your skull are disabled. The only difference you feel is a significant lag, sometimes on the order of minutes, due to the millions of miles of distance between one half of your consciousness and the other. Eventually, the transfer is complete, and you wake up in a place looking very familiar.

Virtual worlds, mimicking the Earth to nanometer resolutions, have already been prepared. In the real world, gargantuan fleets of robots, both nano- and megascopic, are ready to continue building new computers, and spacecraft, and new robots, as humankind prepares to seed the cosmos with intelligence. We haven’t achieved faster-than-light travel, but our immortal minds and limitless virtual realities make space and time irrelevant.

Are you still you?

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A New Device Could Make Memory Implants a Reality

Total Recall

Memories are the faintest, most ethereal wisps of our neurophysiology — somehow, the firing of delicate synapses and the activation of neurons combine to produce the things we remember. The sum of our memories make us who we are; they are us, in every way, and without them we cease to be.

So it’s needless to say that there’s a pretty significant premium on discovering new ways to combat memory loss. Most of these involve physiological and biological methods, but some scientists, such as Theodore Berger of the University of Southern California, are beginning to turn toward technology. If any of these methods are successful, it would mean the possibility of perfect lifelong memory recall.

As a biomedical engineer, Berger has devised an implant that might be called an “artificial hippocampus.” The hippocampus is a part of the brain involved in transforming short-term memories into long-term ones. In short, it’s the neurological structure that converts the name and face of the person you met briefly at a party (short-term) into something you can recall years later.

Berger’s device is inspired by animal experiments designed to understand the functioning of the hippocampus and how it forms memories. Berger noticed that the hippocampus activates in a certain way, firing a pattern he calls a “space-time code” (not to be confused with the astrophysical concept). The memories seem to be formed and modified by the location of activated neurons in the hippocampus and when they fire. As the signal propagates throughout the hippocampus, this space-time sequence represents the long- and short-term memories.

Armed with this understanding, Berger and his team wrote a general mathematical model for how the hippocampus converts short-term memories into long-term memories. Using the model, they could implant useful memories into rats whose memories had been blocked by drugs.

Memory Implants

Of course, humans are a far cry from rats. Mapping the countless billions of synaptic connections in the human brain and understanding how they produce memories would be critical to creating a memory implant with anything like the requisite resolution, so it’s highly unlikely we’ll be seeing implantable memory devices in the near future. However, this breakthrough in cracking the hippocampus’ mathematical “memory code” has very important implications.

If it’s possible to reduce the mechanisms of memory formation and transference to a mere mathematical formula and then refine that understanding with even-more-sophisticated software code, we could be looking at a new era in neuromanipulation. Memory device implants would represent just a small part of the equation — we could also see implantable or false memories, an idea that conjures up dystopian visions but that could actually have more benign medical and psychological uses.

Much more work needs to be done if we’re ever to have memory augments clattering around inside our braincases. Not only would we need to make significant progress in the development of miniaturized technology that can safely and effectively interact with nervous tissue, but we’d also need to improve our understanding of memory formation, develop more accurate techniques for mapping the “connectome,” and devise adequate mathematical models of how the brain works (if that’s ever really possible).

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New Research Shows How “Lost” Memories Can Be Recovered

This Magnet Will Jog Your Memory

We believe we’ve figured out a lot about how our brains handle memories. We’ve identified the parts of the brain that are active in making memories and the parts that store long- and short-term memories. We thought we knew that memory retention was a function of relevant neurons being active, as well, but new research published in the journal Science shows that that may not always be the case.

A team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has discovered that applying an electromagnetic field to specific parts of the brain can reactivate recent memories. By applying the field using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the researchers found they could make a memory that didn’t seem to be active in a person’s brain according to traditional monitoring methods appear active again, according to the study.

In the study, the researchers would ask a participant to remember two different types of information, such as a word and a face. When the researchers would target the part of the brain where short-term memories of words are stored with the TMS, the subject would feel prompted to recall the word they’d be asked to remember, even if they were being verbally told they’d soon be asked a question about the face.

While determining how the brain decides what information to retain as a working memory and what information to set aside isn’t clear, this new study shows how it’s possible to bring latent memories to the foreground. “We think that memory is there, but not active,” Bradley Postle, one of the researchers involved with the study, told Neuroscience News. “More than just showing us it’s there, the TMS can actually make that memory temporarily active again.”

Credits: Wassermann/NINDS
Credits: Wassermann/NINDS

Potential for Treatment

The study significantly improves our understanding of how our brains work, especially when it comes to handling memories — a delicate process that appears to be more complex than previously thought. “What we’re taking are first steps toward looking at the mechanisms that give us control over what we think about,” said Postle. “[Y]ou can picture a point at which this work could help people control their attention, choose what they think about, and manage or overcome some very serious problems associated with a lack of control,” he added.

While this technique is currently limited to just short-term memory or working memory, it has potential in treating short-term memory problems or diseases like Alzheimer’s. It could also be used to treat mental illnesses, which the National Institute of Mental Health reports affect more than 18 percent of adults in the U.S. “A lot of mental illness is associated with the inability to choose what to think about,” said Postle, so giving those people the ability to control their thoughts with this new treatment could dramatically improve their quality of life.

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