Medical and therapeutic neural chips for the treatment of brain disorders and memory duplication — that is the ambitious plan [understatement!] of neuroscientist Ted Berger who has successfully created the world’s first “memory implant” which he believes will revolutionize the world of medicine.
“Watch this,” says Srinivasan, a design engineer working with USC’s Center for Neural Engineering. A thin wire runs between the needle and a tiny silicon chip hooked up to a boxy signal transmitter. He flips a switch, and a series of small waves shimmers across a nearby screen–waves that mean exactly zilch to me. Watch what? I wonder.
Srinivasan explains that the chip is sending electric pulses through the needle into the brain slice, which is passing them on to the screen we’re watching. “The difference in the waves’ modulation reflects the signals sent out by the brain slice,” he says. “And they’re almost identical in frequency and pattern to the pulses sent by the chip.” Put more simply, this iron-gray wafer about a millimeter square is talking to living brain cells as though it were an actual body part.
Ted Berger, Srinivasan’s boss and the mastermind behind the tangle of coils and electrodes, has arranged this demonstration to provide a small but profound glimpse into the future of brain science. The chip’s ability to converse with live cells is a dramatic first step, he believes, toward an implantable machine that fluently speaks the language of the brain–a machine that could restore memories in people with brain damage or help them make new ones.
Berger’s research team–an all-star roster of neuroscientists, mathematicians, computer engineers and bioengineers from around the country–has so far managed to reproduce only a minute amount of brain activity. Their chip models fewer than 12,000 neurons, compared with the 100 billion or so present in a human brain. Yet researchers within the field say that even this small number represents a stunning achievement in the field of neuro-engineering. “It’s the type of science that can change the world,” says Richard H. Granger, Jr., a professor of brain sciences who leads the Neukom Institute for Interdisciplinary Computational Sciences at Dartmouth College. “Replicating memory is going to happen in our lifetimes, and that puts us on the edge of being able to understand how thought arises from tissue–in other words, to understand what consciousness really means.”