A DARPA Brain Implant That Can Retrieve Memories Is In The Works

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 27: A skull is displayed at the Wellcome trusts new 'Brains' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on March 27, 2012 in London, England. The exhibit makes up part of the Wellcome Collection's major new exhibition, 'Brains' which includes slices of Einstein's brain, 3000 year old trepanned skulls, ancient Egyptian mummified brains and brains in jars, and opens to the public from March 29 June 17, 2012. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is spreading some money around to different research labs, and they've got a bold goal in mind: A DARPA brain implant which can record and restore memories for people suffering from neurological disorders, Alzheimer's, traumatic brain injury, epilepsy, and more. DARPA has already dished out a total of $40 million to three institutions — UCLA, Penn State, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — to try to achieve this feat.

If any of the research actually pays off, well, it all sounds revolutionary. But this is still in the very earliest of early stages, and simply handing money to someone and asking them to build you a revolutionary new device is a far cry from holding it in your hands. DARPA's chief motivation is likely to aid treatment for traumatic brain injury or illness, both crises within the U.S. military: At least 270,000 soldiers have suffered from TBI since 2000. 

AFP quotes Justin Sanchez, the program manager for DARPA's Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, laying out the effort.

Our vision is to develop neuroprosthetics for memory recovery in patients living with brain injury and dysfunction. Those service members have paid the ultimate price in service of our nation, so it our great responsibility to try to come up with new and innovative not only scientific but medical approaches that can help repay some of that debt. 

It would be an implant into the brain cavity, obviously, but would derive power from a wireless device attached to the user's ear. When active, it's hoped the implant will be able to directly receive memories through the brain's neurons and also stimulate such neurons to allow for memory restoration. Beyond DARPA's commitments to veterans, such a piece of technology would surely be a game changer for public neurological health, as well. 

Such noble intentions notwithstanding, it's an avenue of research that could potentially lead to questions of bioethics, a reality mentioned by the director of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, Geoffrey Ling, as quoted by AFP. 

It is risky, which is very typical of DARPA.

If even DARPA acknowledges its own risk-taking, far be it for us to disagree. They're no strangers to backing exciting new technologies with decidedly military applications — just last month, we learned about their new, highly advanced Z-Man climbing gloves, developed to allow soldiers to scale walls with just their hands.

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