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Computer-Brain Interfaces Making Big Leaps

by Nick Bilton:  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.

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 the actress Kate Winslet.

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.

Writing to the brain could allow us to interact with our computers, or other human beings, just by thinking about it.

In February, Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University successfully connected the brains of two rats over the Internet, allowing them to communicate with their minds so when one rat pressed a lever, the other one did the same. The rats were in different locations, one at Duke University, in North Carolina, and another in a laboratory in Natal, Brazil.

Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University, in 2008.
Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University, in 2008.

Dr. Nicolelis said he has recently performed other experiments in his lab where he has connected the brains of four mice in what he calls a “brain net” allowing them to share information over the Internet. In another experiment, he took two monkeys and gave them both half of a piece of information to successfully move a robotic arm, which required them to share the information through their brain.

Last week scientists at Harvard Medical School created a brain-to-brain interface that enables a human to move a rat’s tail just by thinking about it.

Of course, in all the movies about brain technology and enhancing memories there is usually a downside. In “Total Recall,” the character has a difficult time distinguishing between reality and his fantasy adventure. This leads to mayhem. In “Eternal Sunshine,” after Mr. Carrey’s character erases his memories, they reappear in a jumble. Hilarity (and insight into love and loss) ensues.

But some researchers don’t appear to be worried about that sort of thing. In his book, “Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines — and How It Will Change Our Lives,” Dr. Nicolelis said he believes it is possible that humans will be able to communicate wirelessly without words or sound, where brain waves are transmitted over the Internet.

“I think this is the real frontier of human communication in the future. We already can get our monkeys, and even humans, to move devices just by thinking,” he said. “Once you can write to the brain, I can imagine the same type of logic working for communication where your thoughts and a message will be communicated to another human being and they will be able to understand it.”

It looks like mending that broken heart, through manipulation of our memories, might be here closer than we think.

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