Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Restoring Lost Memories: Hope for Long-Lived Brains?

Our brains were not really meant to last for 80, 90, 100 years. Metabolic debris accumulates, DNA repair mechanisms break down, and function tends to degenerate at variable rates -- depending upon the individual's lifestyle and genetic complement. Now scientists at USC in Los Angeles are learning how to restore lost memories -- at least in rats.
Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and colleagues, used electrodes implanted within the hippocampus to record patterns of brain activity while rats learned how to operate a sequence of levers to gain a reward.

Next, the team obliterated the memory of the task by injecting chemicals into the hippocampus that block the signalling between neurons needed to access long-term memories. When tested, the rats could no longer perform the task.

However, when the team used the electrodes to stimulate the brain with the same pattern of activity recorded when the rats first learned the task, their ability to operate the levers in the correct sequence was restored. The rats could temporarily access the original memory, even though the chemical blockade was still in place. When fed scrambled versions of the code, the rats could no longer perform the task.

Ultimately, the researchers hope to create implants that contain codes for 20 to 30 simple tasks, enabling people with brain damage to recover basic abilities that have been lost, such as speaking or dressing themselves.

Berger says that encoding these tasks will be very difficult. "These are very basic capabilities that we are investigating, and it has taken us a lot of effort to get this far," he says. _NewScientist
It is unlikely that the USC team actually encoded rat brain activity with any accuracy. Rather, the team was able to encode a sufficient "hint" so as to allow the rats to internally re-assemble or approximate their former memories. Even in a rat's brain, mental codes are more difficult than even the best scientists understand.

But it is a promising beginning that provides hope for the long-lived brains of the future.

Article Abstract from Jnl of Neural Engineering



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