research

Operation memory chip

Aided by the U.S. military, memory research has just taken a big step further into science fiction territory.

Last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — a division of the U.S. Department of Defense — pledged up to $40 million to the development of electronic devices to help restore memory.

You can read more about the research from DARPA and one of the funded labs, plus some somewhat skeptical commentary from neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. At least for now, the research is first and foremost meant to combat memory loss in vulnerable populations. Those groups include military service members who have experienced traumatic brain injury and people living with Alzheimer’s Disease or epilepsy.

The promises here are ambitious: something like hearing aids for human memory, accessories to combat brain damage in real time. The key idea is for the technology to both record from and stimulate brain regions associated with memory. In doing so, it would identify and repair disrupted connections in the brain that interfere with the retrieval of old memories as well as the creation of new ones.

If (when?) these devices succeed, they will have huge clinical impact for anyone suffering from memory loss. On top of that, a memory-restoring implant just sounds really cool. But it’s worth going beyond any shock and awe to ask more subtle questions about the potentials for this technology.

For one thing, I wonder how these devices will target different kinds of memory. The DARPA press release mentions a focus on declarative memories, which it defines as “parcels of knowledge” that can be “described in words, such as events, times and places.” But declarative memory is often further divided into two categories: semantic and episodic. Semantic memories are impersonal facts we can list, like the earth being round or Bogotá being the capital of Colombia. Episodic memory refers to the personal events we can relive in our heads, like a day out with friends.

While these two groups aren’t totally separate, episodic memory can be a lot more complex and seems to carry more emotional content. I would expect restoring the memory of someone’s home address to be far simpler than restoring her memory of, say, learning to ride a bike or having a big fight with her parents. I hope the research updates will say something about the challenges of targeting memories that differ in complexity.

The other thing: I take it for granted that any DARPA-based technology will be considered for both civilian and battlefield use. After all, war and defense are DARPA’s top priority. In this case, a greater understanding of repairing memory also means a greater understanding of tampering with memory, period. That’s something worth keeping an eye on, although of course, DARPA will be quieter about strategic uses that may stem from this research.

A 2008 MindHacks post noted a possibly similar case. According to the post, DARPA’s web site described its Human Assisted Neural Devices Program only in context of helping injured veterans, while the budget justification for the project made clear that the devices would also be used to “improve warfighter performance.” (I couldn’t verify MindHack’s description of the DARPA site because that page has been taken down, and I found no other DARPA press releases on the project.)

Governments will always bring cutting-edge technology to the battlefield. The important point is that wartime use of any technology entails a whole different set of ethical questions beyond how a device can be made safe and noninvasive for patients. Eventually those ethical concerns must be grappled with — by DARPA as well as the research and tech communities helping us take more control of our own, and others’, minds.

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