Friday, June 17, 2011

The Rosy JPEGs of Memory

“We are just scratching the surface when it comes to interacting with the brain, but this experiment shows what’s possible, and the great potential of interacting with the brain in this way.”  
                                       - Daryl Kipke,  professor of bioengineering, University of Michigan

Today's New York Times reports that, "Scientists have designed a brain implant that restored lost memory function and strengthened recall of new information in laboratory rats — a crucial first step in the development of so-called neuroprosthetic devices . . . ." In short, neuroscientists can improve memory with a brain implant that mimics the firing patterns of neurons. This differs from "implants that allow paralyzed people to move prosthetic limbs or a computer cursor, using their thoughts to activate the machines." The new device "translated . . . signals internally, to improve brain function rather than to activate outside appendages." Rats learned to remember which of two identical levers dispensed water; the animals first saw one of the two levers appear and, after being distracted, had to remember to press the second lever to be rewarded. I can almost imagine the rats manipulating a tiny cellphone app with their thumbs to get the water.

"Water, water, aspirin . . . damn apps never work."

The rats were implanted with a tiny array of electrodes threaded from the top of the head into neighboring areas of the hippocampus, which (as I have noted elsewhere) is responsible for memory in creatures with brains. 

Creature with brain

I'm pleased that experts are busily "scratching the surface when it comes to interacting with the brain," and can appreciate the potential of such technological breakthroughs as well as the next person (see photo above). For that matter, I'm personally in favor of interacting with the brain, scratching or no scratching, which being only human, I try to do regularly, scratching generally being one of my favorite ways to interact with my brain. But since my brain seems to have a mind of its own and interacts with so many things besides me, I have only a mixed record of success. On those increasingly rare occasions when my brain is interacting, it's all I can do just to keep my thumbs out of the way

which to my way of thinking is enough reason not to have a Twitter account. You can probably see where this might be going.

Neuroprosthetics will doubtless prove a benison to humankind, particularly since so complex an organ of apprehension is prone to predictable malfunctions at unpredictable times.

"Uhhh . . . this ain't my car keys!"

Nevertheless, much as I dislike throwing cold water on progress, this trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. Playing with electronics is playing with fire. Think about it - the human brain connected to a pair of thumbs connected to . . . there's no telling what might happen.

Christopher Lee, New York's forgotten ex-Representative
Following that, it's just too easy to imagine the tragicomic prospect of some poor chap's neuroprosthetic memory-enhancing implant short-circuited by a dowsing in the shower, a surfeit of ear wax or a too-enthusiastic application of Valvoline . . . 

. . . broadcasting his innermost thoughts, dreams and aspirations via his Twitter account without the interposition of anyone's thumbs. I leave it to future neurological research to discover whether, since memories often return to us in a visual format, neuroprosthetically enhanced memory will be reproduceable as a .jpg file.

(His thumbs got in the way.)

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