A Brain Implant Improved Memory, Scientists Report

Scientists have developed a brain implant that noticeably boosted memory in its first serious test run, perhaps offering a promising new strategy to treat dementia, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions that damage memory.

The device works like a pacemaker, sending electrical pulses to aid the brain when it is struggling to store new information, but remaining quiet when it senses that the brain is functioning well.

In the test, reported Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, the device improved word recall by 15 percent — roughly the amount that Alzheimer’s disease steals over two and half years.

The implant is still experimental; the researchers are currently in discussions to commercialize the technology. And its broad applicability is unknown, having been tested so far only in people with epilepsy.

Experts cautioned that the potential for misuse of any “memory booster” is enormous — A.D.H.D. drugs are widely used as study aids. They also said that a 15 percent improvement is fairly modest.

Still, the research marks the arrival of new kind of device: an autonomous aid that enhances normal, but less than optimal, cognitive function.

Doctors have used similar implants for years to block abnormal bursts of activity in the brain, most commonly in people with Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

“The exciting thing about this is that, if it can be replicated and extended, then we can use the same method to figure out what features of brain activity predict good performance,” said Bradley Voytek, an assistant professor of cognitive and data science at the University of California, San Diego.

The implant is based on years of work decoding brain signals, supported recently by more than $70 million from the Department of Defense to develop treatments for traumatic brain injury, the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The research team, led by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University, last year reported that timed electrical pulses from implanted electrodes could reliably aid recall.

“It’s one thing to go back through your data, and find that the stimulation works. It’s another to have the program run on its own and watch it work in real time,” said Michael Kahana, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the senior author of the new study.

“Now that the technology is out of the box, all sorts of neuro-modulation algorithms could be used in this way,” he added.

Dr. Edward Chang, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, San Francisco, said, “Very similar approaches might be relevant for other applications, such as treating symptoms of depression or anxiety,” though the targets in the brain would be different.