Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi School Team Gears Up to Create "Cognitive Prosthesis"

"REMIND" chip will communicate with the hippocampus to replace destroyed cells
Eric Mankin
May 20, 2009 —

Building on decades of basic research, a team led by Theodore Berger has won a 4-year $16.4 million DARPA grant to restore lost memory function.

Berger, a professor in the department of biomedical engineering who holds the David Packard Chair in the Viterbi School, and directs the Center for Neural Engineering, will partner with fellow BME faculty member Vasilis Marmarelis and chip design expert John Granacki of the School's Information Sciences Institute.

USC will work with Sam Deadwyler at the Wake  Forest Medical School and Greg Gerhardt at Kentucky Medical School  on the effort, called REMIND.  The research will build upon and coordinate with Berger's cortical prosthesis testbed work at the USC Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems Center,

Berger has been working on decoding the functionality of hippocampus cells for more than three decades, leading to a startling achievement described in a 2008 Scientific American story, "Jacking into the Brain."

"A collaboration between the University of Southern California and Wake Forest University has worked to fashion a replacement body part for this memory-forming brain structure. The hippocampus, seated deep within the brain’s temporal lobe, sustains damage in stroke or Alzheimer’s. An electronic bypass of a damaged hippocampus could restore the ability to create new memories.

'The project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, might eventually go further, enhancing normal memory or helping to deduce the particular codes needed for high-­level cognition.

"The two groups—led by Theodore W. Berger at U.S.C. and Samuel Deadwyler at Wake Forest—are preparing a technical paper showing that an artificial hippocampus took over from the biological organ the task of consolidating a rat’s memory of pressing a lever to receive a drop of water. Normally the hippocampus emits signals that are relayed to cortical areas responsible for storing the long-term memory of an experience.

"For the experiment, a chemical temporarily incapacitated the hippocampus. When the rat pressed the correct bar, electrical input from sensory and other areas of the cortex were channeled through a microchip, which, the scientists say, dispatched the same signals the hippocampus would have sent. A demonstration that an artificial device mimicked hippocampal output would mark a step toward deducing the underlying code that could be used to create a memory in the motor cortex—and perhaps one day to unravel ciphers for even higher-level behaviors."

The new grant, says Berger, will pay the way to the next steps on this path.