“War is hell,” William Tecumseh Sherman so succinctly said in 1879. Perhaps it is not so surprising then that the stress of warfare can induce dissociative amnesia, where the stress and trauma can actually suppress memories. While blocking out the bad memories might be handy, sometimes the disorder can suppress years of memories, leaving the person without knowledge of their family or friends. A group of military researchers are close to announcing progress of a brain implant which could help restore these memories.
Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager, discussed the possibilities for this device at a conference for the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas. Further details of how this memory regeneration is expected to be achieved will be released within the next few months. The project has been dubbed Restoring Active Memory, or RAM.
“If you have been injured in the line of duty and you can’t remember your family, we want to be able to restore those kinds of functions,” Sanchez said, according to AFP. “We think that we can develop neuroprosthetic devices that can directly interface with the hippocampus, and can restore the first type of memories we are looking at, the declarative memories.”
If successful, this initiative would be the first to demonstrate that memories of people, facts, and events can be restored once lost. Regaining memories wouldn’t just be helpful for those who have experienced war, but it could also be used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, which affects 5 million Americans.
The challenge of developing this technology is that memories are wholly based on patterns, and restoring memories would require knowledge of those patterns. Experiments have shown that scientists can bolster short term memory in animal models by analyzing and replicating the patterns created by the neurons, but restoring long term memories in human brains is exponentially more difficult.
"The idea is to restore a function back to normal or near normal of the memory processing areas of the brain so that the person can access their formed memories, and so that they can form new memories as needed," said Robert Hampton of Wake Forest University, according to AFP.
Of course, there are ethical concerns to address. Arthur Caplan serves as a medical ethicist to DARPA, though neuroscience is not his realm of expertise. He cautions that memories are a large part of a person’s identity and this could have large, unforeseen consequences. He speculates that being able to alter memories could impact combat training, potentially making them more violent with fewer repercussions. It could also interfere with mission debriefings or investigations.
As official statements about the details of RAM have not yet been released, it is not known how some of these ethical concerns will be addressed. It is also not yet clear who will be used in the first human trials as this research goes forward.