n a scientific breakthrough that seems torn from the script of Planet of the Apes, researchers have designed an electrical brain implant that improves the thinking power of monkeys. The hope is that, one day, such an implant will improve the quality of life for people suffering from debilitating brain diseases such as dementia. Here's what you should know:
What exactly did scientists discover?
Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the University of Kentucky, and the University of Southern California enlisted a group of rhesus monkeys for a futuristic-sounding brain experiment. For two years, they trained the monkeys to perform a "match-to-sample" task. Basically, an image of a person or toy would appear on a screen in front of a monkey, then disappear. When the monkey was subsequently shown a group of images, he would try to select the image he'd seen earlier. If he guessed correctly, he was rewarded. Over time, the monkeys were able to accomplish the task with a commendable 75 percent accuracy.
How did the brain implant come into play?
After the monkeys grew comfortable with the task, scientists hooked electrodes up to their prefrontal cortexes — the part of the brain associated with memory, attention, thought, and language — and recorded the electrical patterns of neural activity whenever the monkeys made correct decisions. Next, scientists fed the pattern back into the monkeys' brains every time they were about to make a new decision, says Jon Bardin at the Los Angeles Times — effectively catalyzing and amplifying the "correct" electrical pattern. Immediately, the monkeys' performance improved by a surprising 10 percent.
What did scientists do next?
They brought out the drugs, says George Dvorsky at io9. To test whether the brain implants could still improve a monkey's decision-making ability in the face of an external impediment, researchers used the decision-stifling properties of cocaine to (temporarily) transform the monkeys into less adept thinkers. When drugged with cocaine and deprived of the brain implant, monkeys' performance fell 20 percent. But when researchers hooked coked-up monkeys to the electrodes, their decision-making abilities were just as good as monkeys who were boosted by the implant but unencumbered by cocaine. Bottom line: The implants worked, even with the distracting influence of cocaine.
Hopefully, one day science will develop an implantable chip that helps facilitate cognition for humans suffering from brain diseases like dementia, or people who've had a stroke, says study co-author Sam A. Deadwyler from Wake Forest. "The whole idea is that the device would generate an output pattern that bypasses the damaged area, providing an alternative connection" in the brain. And who knows? Maybe one day, the chip will help improve the thinking abilities of "healthy humans," says io9's Dvorsky, meaning "prosthetically enabled intelligence augmentation" could become a reality.
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