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August 10, 2023

This neuro-hack could cure brain diseases

In studying intra-brain communication during sleep, researchers may have found a way to treat diseases and change unhealthy behaviors.

In the news

While you dream, something equally intriguing is also occurring in your brain. It’s called memory consolidation, and it consists of your hippocampus and neocortex communicating with one another to process information for long-term storage.

In a recently published paper, a UCLA team says it has hacked this process in a way that could eventually help treat patients with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

By stimulating the brain’s frontal lobe, which is part of the neocortex, during sleep, the team says it “improved the accuracy of recognition memory—the ability to recognize things previously encountered—in patients with epilepsy.” The hope is that such stimulation could be tuned to improve memory for people with other brain disorders.

The experiment itself is as fascinating as the results are tantalizing. Results of previous experiments on mice caused the UCLA researchers to wonder whether enhancing the byplay between the hippocampus and neocortex could improve memory consolidation. The human subjects were selected because their epilepsy was unresponsive to drug treatment, and thus they already had electrodes implanted in their brains for clinical reasons. One member of the team described this as “a very rare opportunity to look at brain activity from the inside with high precision.”

We decided to revisit this topic, which we’ve addressed before, in light of the new paper.

The Cognizant take

“What’s interesting in this paper is the idea of hacking intra-brain communication,” says Bryan Hill, Vice-President of Digital Health & Innovation at Cognizant Life Sciences. “New approaches to boosting memory have application beyond improving life for those living with dementia.”

Consider that more than two-thirds of Americans with prescription medications fail to take those meds as needed, and the leading reason is forgetfulness. Solving for this, Hill notes, could impact the 125,000 premature deaths per year caused by non-adherence to medication protocols.

Moreover, Hill adds, identifying points of exchange between the hippocampus and neocortex could conceivably allow for a true neuro-hack to introduce new memories or thoughts—which may impact how we live with disease beyond dementia.

“Digital therapeutics today largely target behavioral health conditions,” he says, often through apps that attempt to drive behavior change through personalized behavior change models, notifications and reminders. While these tools have proved effective, there’s still the “extra click” required by humans to act at certain points.

But Hill paints a different picture. Imagine a new generative AI-powered digital therapeutic that can create a novel semantic thought comprised of imagery, text and aural narration to represent a memory that makes the human believe a desired behavior to be of their very nature—thus adopting the behavior like clockwork every day, he suggests.

“Wake up, take diabetes medication. Go for a run. Eat a healthy meal. Go to bed at 10:00 PM and sleep for eight hours—these would all be behavioral ‘memories’ the person believes to be true of themselves,” Hill says, “so they act accordingly—without a click or a swipe.”

It's a powerful vision.

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