The Pentagon has ambitious plans to develop a prosthetic for the brain that, if successful, will restore memory functions lost to troops who suffered brain injuries as well as people losing their pasts to Alzheimer's disease.
The Restoring Active Memory - or RAM - is just one project among a broad, multi-agency program underway as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative announced by the White House last year.
More than 300,000 service members have sustained traumatic brain injuries since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center. The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, which is pumping $50 million into the research this year, said there currently are no effective therapies to treat the long-term effects of TBI on memory, notwithstanding the size of the problem.
"The specific end goal of RAM is to develop and test an implantable neural device for human clinical use to restore specific types or attributes of memories to individuals with memory deficits," the agency says. The Pentagon will also be looking at new ways to treat mental health disorders, including depression, and to restore the ability of patients with Parkinson's disease to control their movements.
First up, DARPA has to develop models of how neurons code for declarative memory - that is, knowledge that can be consciously recalled, such as events, times and places. Additionally, researchers will have to find new ways of analyzing and decoding neural signals in order to understand how neural stimulation may facilitate the ability of the brain to process information following brain injury.
"If successful, RAM will improve quality of life for brain-injured servicemembers and veterans thorough the use of neurotechnology that restores specific types of memories that had been lost to injury," the agency says.
In addition to DARPA, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are funding research programs under the BRAIN Initiative.