DARPA Memory Study

Joshua Jacobs, PhD, an assistant professor in Drexel University’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems is a key contributor in a multi-center $22.5 million, four-year effort to develop technologies for using brain stimulation to help people recover their ability to encode and retrieve memories. The project is in support of President Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative.

Jacobs will join a team led by Michael Kahana at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). The team is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under a program called “Restoring Active Memory.”

The first component of the project is to identify brain signals that predict significant, successful memory.  Because memory involves widespread brain regions, the researchers will study neurosurgical patients who already have electrodes implanted in various areas of their brains for the treatment of neurological disease. By recording brain signals during memory formation, the researchers will measure “biomarkers” of successful memory function — patterns of activity that accompany the successful formation of new memories and the successful retrieval of old ones. 

As part of the research team, Jacobs’s lab will seek to further understand the spatial memory capabilities of the brain. This is an area that Jacobs has been exploring for several years with researchers from Thomas Jefferson University, Penn and the University of California, Los Angeles. Last summer the team published its discovery of human “grid cells” – the brain cells responsible for keeping track of one’s location while navigating—in Nature Neuroscience.

With funding through the DARPA program, the next step in Jacobs’ research will expand the studies of spatial memory in hopes of restoring it to people whose ability to use their memory to navigate has been lost or degraded.

“Navigation is critical for everyday life.  If we can prevent people from getting lost it will significantly improve the quality of life for people with navigation problems due to traumatic brain injury or neurodegeneration due to aging.”

Solving this problem will involve recruiting neurosurgical patients with epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, who are already receiving brain stimulation as part of their clinical treatment. This is a therapeutic approach that Jacobs specializes in as part of his research. Patients may elect to participate in the projects’ research studies, which entail receiving safe levels of brain stimulation as they play computer-based memory games. 

“If memory can be facilitated in patients who have electrodes implanted to treat epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease, and who frequently have mild memory impairment, then we will have gained extremely valuable information on how to restore normal memory function in patients with traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease,” said Kahana.
Beyond the advances in basic and clinical research, a major component of this effort is the development of next-generation technologies to enable real-time recording and stimulation of sites throughout the brain. This effort will be carried out through separate collaborations with Medtronic Inc. and with Neuropace Inc. Medtronic, whose FDA-approved deep brain stimulation systems have been implanted in more than 110,000 patients worldwide, will assist in the development of an investigational neural stimulation and monitoring system, which may lead to better understandings of the brain and how deep brain stimulation therapy can potentially restore normal brain function following injury or the onset of neuropsychological illness. Neuropace, whose RNS® System was FDA-approved in November to reduce the frequency of seizures in epilepsy patients who have not responded well to medications, will join the project to provide another platform for research in patients with implanted electrodes.

The patients for this study will be recruited at seven hospitals that are leaders in the clinical treatment for patients with epilepsy: Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Emory University Hospital, University of Washington Medical Center, the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Jacobs will join a team of neuroscientists, engineers and applied mathematicians from Boston University and the University of Washington to help develop computational models of memory and algorithms to guide brain stimulation. 

“I am excited about this project for many reasons. Not only will it help expand our fundamental understanding of human brain function, but it will also allow us to use the results of our work to improve the quality of life of people with brain injury and disease.  Memory disorders are a growing problem and I am hopeful that we will have a positive impact through this research.” 

By the end of the four-year project, the team aims to lay the groundwork for a fully implantable neural monitoring and stimulation system that could be used in the treatment of memory loss.