The company Kernel seems to think so. This start-up company, launched by Bryan Johnson, is researching to try to develop a brain chip that will mimic memory functions and eventually aid in memory restoration. From there, he dreams of developing a prosthesis to enhance memory and potentially other functions in those with healthy brains.
Memory problems, from trauma to Alzheimer’s, are a huge issue across the world, so memory restoration aids have a huge gap in the market. Theodore Berger, who is working for Kernel, is a director of the Centre for Neural Engineering at the University of Southern California and has been working on these chips for over twenty years.
The part of the brain that they are focusing on is the hippocampus, which, when working correctly, is key in laying down new memories. Memories are created by the firing of specific neural circuits that turn short-term memories into long-term ones. This is still not entirely well-understood, but understanding the inner working of the hippocampus is the first step in the crusade for memory.
To be successful, the chip would have to work in the same way as the complex circuits within the brain. Berger claims that they can “reduce it to mathematical equations and put it into a computational framework”. The silicon prosthetic would record the signals when a person is learning, have a microprocessor to allow for the calculations needed and then stimulate the necessary neurons with electrodes.
The idea would be to start with people with pre-existing memory disorders to help them encode new memories. However, many scientists do not have such a hopeful view and have claimed that such things are far-fetched at this moment in time.
Kernel’s trials have been somewhat successful in animals. In the trials using rats, an underlying code was discovered and used to program the chip. Unfortunately, this was not the same in primates. The further issue is that human brains have around 86 billion neurons while rats have 200 million – a very big difference.
Despite this, human trials are going ahead using those who already have electrical implants for epilepsy. The idea of implanting electrodes in the brain has been around for years in treatments for things such as epilepsy, depression and Parkinson’s. However, the information behind memory formation is still lacking. The brain is noisy and complex with a vast range of different networks but Berger and his team are determined to continue their work.
Who knows, maybe the caffeine that most of us run on during exam period will be replaced with a much smaller, much sparkier brain stimulant?