If the 20th century was defined by the achievements of physics, the 21st century will no doubt be defined by the achievements of biology. To most people, the amazing advances in medical research taking place right now seem like they’re straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel. But there’s nothing fictitious about it – this is the year that human brain implants will bring us one step closer to defeating Alzheimer’s forever.
Brain Prosthetics and Alzheimer’s
The scientist who has been working on this breakthrough for the past two decades is Dr. Theodore Berger of the University of Southern California. Although the science behind it is very complicated, the Berger chip is actually relatively easy to understand. As Alzheimer’s causes to the death of neurons, the brain shrinks, and electrical signals fail to get to where they’re supposed to go. The end result is the memory loss, confusion, and personality changes that characterize Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Berger’s chip circumvents this problem by mimicking the signals of correctly functioning neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain hit first and most often by Alzheimer’s. While this technique can’t put memories back in the brain, it does help improve our capability to create and retrieve them. Early tests of the chip have proven to be a roaring success in rats and monkeys, and human trials are already underway.
Science Fiction is Becoming Science Fact
Earlier this year, DARPA’s chief of biotechnology claimed the advances we’ll see over just the next year will “blow our minds.” And from the little that’s been revealed over the past few weeks, he’s almost certainly right. For example, researchers are currently experimenting with a totally wireless brain-computer interface. By implanting electrodes in paralyzed individuals, scientists have successfully helped paralyzed individuals to manipulate robotic limbs with the use of their minds alone.
These types of advancements might feel like science fiction, but they’re actually becoming increasingly common. It was only a few decades ago that the cochlear implant began to help hundreds of thousands of deaf people to recover their hearing by sending electrical signals directly to their auditory nerves. And human-machine symbiosis is nothing new, as anyone with an artificial hip or knee can tell you.
The Future is Soon for Alzheimer’s Discoveries
Neuroprosthetics are just one of a number of medical advances making their way down the pipe. In Korea, researchers are testing the efficacy of taurine for restoring cognitive function for patients of dementia. In Australia, ultrasound technology is being tested to try and break up the brain plaques that lead to memory loss. Right here in America, researchers are testing a drug that may be able to slow the development of Alzheimer’s by as much as 30%.
You may have noticed that none of these advances promise to cure Alzheimer’s outright, but cumulatively, they promise progress in treating Alzheimer’s and slowing its march. It may only be a few years until Alzheimer’s is little more than a chronic illness — something that can be made totally manageable with treatment. And while that might sound like science fiction to some people, researchers like Dr. Berger see it only as a matter of time.
What are your thoughts on new Alzheimer’s research? If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s what sort of treatments are they receiving for their condition? How is it working. We would love to hear more in the comments below.