Last autumn, “a top biotechnology research official at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), challenged neuroscientists to do something extraordinary: Develop an implantable device that can restore memory loss in vets with traumatic brain injuries.”
Up to $40 million in short-term, high-stakes funding was offered. Now DARPA has announced two academic teams which will receive funding for this project.
“Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), will receive up to $15 million to develop a memory-restoring prosthesis that focuses on the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus—brain regions key to memory formation. A second team at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) will receive up to $22.5 million to develop a device that can monitor and modulate many different brain regions involved in memory formation and storage.”
The viability of the DARPA effort will depend greatly on what kind of memory loss people with traumatic brain injury actually have. In the case of a storage problem with missing connections, “no implantable device is going to help.” “On the other hand, if a traumatic injury produces a retrieval problem, in which most of a memory is there, but simply difficult to access, stimulation could potentially be useful.”
“It is going to be extremely hard,” however, to determine which cells contain the memory and precisely tune electrical stimulation to drive its retrieval …..
Such challenges define the kind of “blue-sky, high-risk” project that DARPA is uniquely positioned to take on. ….. Given the 270,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, nothing less than a major scientific leap is required ….. As things stand, the options for injured service members “are very few.”