July 10, 2014

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Program in Memory Restoration $15 million toward a four-year project aiming to help restore the loss of memory function in those suffering from brain-injury.

Memory is the process of maintaining information over time. Memory is our capability to learn, store, retain and recall when needed. Certain types of illness or injury can disturb this process, and as a result, cause loss of memory.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a major cause of disability and death in the US and contributes to around 30% of all deaths related to injury. TBI can have effects such as impaired thinking, movement, sensation, emotional functioning and memory.

TBI can be caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head. Not all blows to the head result in a TBI, yet when they do, normal functioning of the brain can be disrupted. In 2010, about 2.5 million emergency department (ED) visits, hospitalizations, or deaths were associated with TBI.

neuromodulation device
Schematic illustration of the neuromodulation device designed to restore memory to be developed by UCLA RAM team.
Image credit: UCLA

Dr. Itzhak Fried, the lead investigator for the UCLA project and 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, says:

“Losing our ability to remember past events and form new memories is one of the most dreaded afflictions of the human condition.”

In 2012, Fried’s research demonstrated that by stimulating the entorhinal area of the brain, known to be involved in learning, memory and Alzheimer’s disease, human memory could be supported. The entorhinal cortex is regarded as the entrance to the hippocampus, the region responsible for helping to form and store memories, and plays a vital role in converting day-to-day occurrences into long lasting memories.

“The entorhinal cortex is the golden gate to the brain’s memory mainframe,” Fried explains. “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.”

Epilepsy patients, who are implanted with electrodes as part of their treatment plan, will have single neurons and small neuronal populations stimulated and their activity recorded.

Fried’s research team together with UCLA’s Mayank Mehta, a professor of physics and astronomy and neurobiology, along with Gabriel Kreiman, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, will develop computational models of how to intervene with complex electrical stimulation to help restore memory function.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) will be awarded $2.5 million separately by DARPA as part of the project to develop an implantable neural device with the abilities mentioned above – to record and stimulate neurons within the brain to help restore memory.

UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science researchers led by Dejan Markovic, an associate professor of electrical engineering, will work with LLNL and Stanford University engineers to develop the electronics to be embedded in the neuromodulation device.

Markovic reveals:

“We are developing ultra-low 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.”

Neuromodulation device may help to diminish the effect of memory disorders

The neuromodulation device may help to expand understanding of how memories are formed in areas of the brain, and help diminish the effect of memory disorders.

“Currently, there is no effective treatment for memory loss caused by a condition such as traumatic brain injury,” says LLNL’s project leader Satinderpall Pannu, director of the LLNL’s Center for Bioengineering, a facility dedicated to fabricating biocompatible neural interfaces. He adds, “This is a tremendous opportunity from DARPA to leverage Lawrence Livermore’s unique capabilities to develop cutting-edge medical devices that will change the health care landscape.”

The second phase of the program will focus on implanting the device in patients with TBI as part of a pioneering clinical trial. The minimally invasive surgery will embed the device into the entorhinal area and hippocampus.

The program is part of the DARPA program, called Restoring Active Memory, or RAM, which supports President Obama’s “Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies” (BRAIN) initiative.

Fried concludes:

“The RAM program poses a formidable challenge reaching across multiple disciplines from basic brain research to medicine, computing and engineering.

But at the end of the day, it is the suffering individual, whether an injured member of the armed forces or a patient with Alzheimer’s disease, who is at the center of our thoughts and efforts.”

Since 2000, TBI has affected more than 270,000 military service members and has been associated with distressing memory loss.

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