Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, traumatic brain injury and epilepsy are unique health problems, but they also have something in common—they impair the ability to make and use short-term memory.
Sam Deadwyler, PhD, and Robert Hampson, PhD, both with Wake Forest School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, are at the center of a team of scientists with a unique and futuristic solution.
They’re developing an electronic prosthetic device that records the firing patterns of multiple neurons in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in decision-making. They can then send those patterns back out into the brain to restore the ability to make decisions when the brain has been damaged. Their success demonstrating the process with nonhuman primate models was published last year in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
Repairing Function after Brain Injury or Brain Disease
The prosthetic device is used to replace or support the part of the brain used to process information if is damaged by a disease or injury. It will not retrieve or restore memories.
“The idea of this device would be to restore function; with it switched on, you’d be able to put your keys down on the desk, come back later and remember where your keys are,’’ Hampson says. “It’s not going to tell you ‘Here’s a picture of grandma. This is grandma.’”
His colleague explains further.
“That’s why this is called a prosthesis. It’s not to prevent things,’’ Deadwyler says. “It allows a function to be utilized if there is loss of connectivity or damage.’’
One of the drivers funding their work has been the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), of the Department of Defense, which sees potential benefit for wounded soldiers.
And those benefits might not be so far off.
Hampson says with research continuing, he expects proof of the concept to come in five years and that devices could be possible for use in 10 years. Their team includes colleagues Ted Berger, PhD, from the University of Southern California, and Greg Gerhardt, PhD, of the University of Kentucky.
“What used to be considered things very far down the road, almost non-imaginable, are now very doable,’’ Deadwyler says. “We’re actually on the cusp of this.’’