Computer-Brain Interfaces Making Big Leaps

Scientists haven’t yet found a way to mend a broken heart, but they’re edging closer to manipulating memory and downloading instructions from a computer right into a brain.
Researchers from the Riken-M.I.T. Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took us closer to this science-fiction world of brain tweaking last week when they said they were able to create a false memory in a mouse.
The scientists reported in the journal Science that they caused mice to remember receiving an electrical shock in one location, when in reality they were zapped in a completely different place. The researchers weren’t able to create entirely new thoughts, but they applied good or bad feelings to memories that already existed.
“It wasn’t so much writing a memory from scratch, it was basically connecting two different types of memories. We took a neutral memory, and we artificially updated that to make it a negative memory,” said Steve Ramirez, one of the M.I.T. neuroscientists on the project.
It may sound insignificant and perhaps not a nice way to treat mice, but it is not a dramatic leap to imagine that one day this research could lead to computer-manipulation of the mind for things like the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr. Ramirez said.
Technologists are already working on brain-computer interfaces, which will allow us to interact with our smartphones and computers simply by using our minds. And there are already gadgets that read our thoughts and allow us to do things like dodge virtual objects in a computer game or turn switches on and off with a thought.
But the scientists who are working on memory manipulation are the ones who seem to be pushing the boundaries of what we believe is possible. Sure, it sounds like movie fantasy right now, but don’t laugh off the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters; sometimes the movies can be a great predictor of things to come.
In the movie, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a character played by Jim Carrey uses a service that erases memories to wipe his brain of his former girlfriend, played by Kate Winslet.
But it seems the movie’s screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, was selling science short.
“The one thing that the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” gets wrong, is that they are erasing an entire memory,” said Mr. Ramirez of M.I.T. “I think we can do better, while keeping the image of Kate Winslet, we can get rid of the sad part of that memory.”
Hollywood and science-fiction writers, of course, have had fun with memory manipulation over the years.
In the film “Total Recall,” which is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, a character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger receives a memory implant of a fake vacation to Mars. In “The Matrix,” characters can download new skills like languages or fighting techniques to their mind, much like downloading a file to a computer.
Far-fetched? Perhaps, and we’re not yet fighting our robot overlords as the humans were in “The Matrix,” but researchers really are exploring ways to upload new information to the brain.
In 2011, scientists working in collaboration with Boston University and A.T.R. Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, published a paper on a process called Decoded Neurofeedback, or “DecNef,” which sends signals to the brain through a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or FMRI, that can alter a person’s brain activity pattern. In time, these scientists believe they could teach people how to play a musical instrument while they sleep, learn a new language or master a sport, all by “uploading” information to the brain.

By Nick Bilton
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