Both patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries have a common problem: memory loss. The UCLA Program in Memory Restoration is a team of experts in neurosurgery, engineering, neurobiology, psychology and physics that will collaborate to develop, surgically implant, and test a memory prosthesis in the brain. On July 9, the UCLA researchers announced that they had been awarded funds up to $15 million by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for a four -year project focused on helping patients with brain injuries restore lost memory functions. A UCLA
The investigators explain that memory is the process whereby neurons (nerve cells) in certain areas of the brain encode information, store it, and retrieve it. Certain types of illnesses and injuries disturb this process, resulting in memory loss. “Losing our ability to remember past events and form new memories is one of the most dreaded afflictions of the human condition,” noted lead investigator Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
In 2012, Dr. Freid, together with lead author lead author Nanthia Suthana and colleagues. Published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that demonstrated that human memory could be enhanced by stimulating the entorhinal area, a brain region known to be involved in learning, memory, and Alzheimer’s disease. The entorhinal cortex is considered to be the entrance to the hippocampus, which helps form and store memories; it plays an indispensable role in transforming daily experience into permanent memories. The new, first-of-its kind project builds on that study.
Dr. Fried explained, “The entorhinal cortex is the golden gate to the brain’s memory mainframe,. Every visual and sensory experience that we eventually commit to memory funnels through that doorway to the hippocampus. Our brain cells send signals through this hub in order to form memories that we can later consciously recall.” As a major component of the project, Dr. Fried’s team will stimulate and record activity of single neurons and small neuronal populations in epilepsy patients; these patients have electrode implanted in their brain as part of their epilepsy treatment. Dr. Mayank Mehta, UCLA professor of physics, astronomy, and neurobiology, together with Gabriel Kreiman, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, will team up with Dr. Fried’s researchers to develop computational models of how to intervene with sophisticated electrical stimulation to help restore memory function.
Dr. Fried notes that the models will be directly applied vias transformative technology developed by UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science researchers led by Dejan Markovic, an associate professor of electrical engineering. Dr. Markovic’s team will work with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Stanford University engineers to develop the electronics embedded in the neuromodulation device.
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will be awarded $2.5 million under a separate cooperative agreement with DARPA to develop an implantable neural device with the ability to record and stimulate neurons within the brain; the goal of the project is memory restoration. Dr. Markovic explained that the goal is to create miniature wireless neural sensors that are significantly more sophisticated than those in existence today. The inductively-charged, wireless sensors will track and modulate neural activity with extremely precise spatial and temporal resolution that will continuously update and modulate precise patterns of stimulation to optimize therapy and restore memory function.
Dr. Marcovic explained, “We are developing ultralow power electronics in order to measure activity of specific areas of the brain, do neural signal analysis and wirelessly transmit that information to an outside device in close proximity to the implants. The implants and the outside device will talk to each other. The goals are to provide better therapy for people with neurological dysfunction and help those with epilepsy and brain injury to enhance and restore memory.” He notes that the team will investigate areas of the brain associated with memory to understand how memories are formed and reduce the effect of memory disorders.
The second phase of the program will involve the use of minimally invasive surgery to implant the neuromodulation device into the entorhinal area and hippocampus in patients with traumatic brain injury as a component of a clinical trial. Since 2000, more than 270,000 military service members have suffered a traumatic brain injury, which is frequently associated with debilitating memory loss.