By Glen Hiemstra, 2003
Imagine that one could replace part of a damaged brain with a computer chip that perfectly replicates the brain. Imagine that one could use instrumentation to ‘read’ brain activity, and use that information to program a computer chip. Imagine, then, the downloadable brain.
This idea has fueled science fiction writers and brain-mind-computer researchers such as Ray Kurzweil for decades.
But now imagine that real steps in this direction are being taken, in 2003. This takes no imagination at all, because it is true.
“Imagine that one could replace part of a damaged brain with a computer chip that perfectly replicates the brain”.
Researchers at the University of Southern California, led by Theodore Berger, are ready to test the world’s first ‘brain prosthesis.’ Theodore Berger was singled out by Wired magazine some years ago as the ‘man who wants to implant microchips between your ears.’
As reported in NewScientist on March 12, 2003, the brain prosthesis to be tested is a computer chip designed to replicate and replace the hippocampus region in the brain of a rat. Tests will proceed from using rat brain tissue, to tests with live rats, and eventually if all goes well, to monkeys and eventually humans.
The hippocampus is a region of the brain designed to encode memories for storage elsewhere in the brain. It is a region that is damaged by stroke, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. Restoring the hippocampus would enable people with such injury or disease to record memories once again.
The most amazing part of Berger’s work is how the chip was programmed. Working with rat brains, the hippocampus region was stimulated with electrical signals millions of times. By recording which signals produced which output from the hippocampus, a mathematical model of the entire hippocampus was created, and then programmed onto a computer chip. Communication with the rest of the brain is done via an array of electrodes.
The pending experiments will test whether the computer chip will indeed function effectively as an artificial hippocampus. Eventually, Berger believes, laser based chips that replicate 10,000 neurons in an implantable component the size of a peanut will be possible. If so, imagine what may be possible when nano-scale, quantum computing becomes a reality, if it does. Work is also being done on developing processes by which the dendrites and axons of surrounding brain tissue (the brain’s communication conduits) simply grow themselves onto the artificial chip.
With the hippocampus chip a critical challenge will be whether an organism implanted with such a chip will have control over what is remembered, or whether the chip will simply record everything. A fundamental aspect of human mental health is the ability to forget, considered to be as important as the ability to remember.
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.