The world’s first brain prosthesis – an artificial hippocampus – is about to be tested in California. Unlike devices like cochlear implants, which merely stimulate brain activity, this silicon chip implant will perform the same processes as the damaged part of the brain it is replacing.
The prosthesis will first be tested on tissue from rats’ brains, and then on live animals. If all goes well, it will then be tested as a way to help people who have suffered brain damage due to stroke, epilepsy or Alzheimer’s disease.
Any device that mimics the brain clearly raises ethical issues. The brain not only affects memory, but your mood, awareness and consciousness – parts of your fundamental identity, says ethicist Joel Anderson at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.
The researchers developing the brain prosthesis see it as a test case. “If you can’t do it with the hippocampus you can’t do it with anything,” says team leader Theodore Berger of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The hippocampus is the most ordered and structured part of the brain, and one of the most studied. Importantly, it is also relatively easy to test its function.
The job of the hippocampus appears to be to “encode” experiences so they can be stored as long-term memories elsewhere in the brain. “If you lose your hippocampus you only lose the ability to store new memories,” says Berger. That offers a relatively simple and safe way to test the device: if someone with the prosthesis regains the ability to store new memories, then it’s safe to assume it works. – continued on Newsci