In The Future, A Brain Implant Could Help You Make Better Decisions

Rhesus MacaqueA rhesus macaque

Photo: Flickr/Ssppeeeeddy

If you’ve thought to yourself, “well that was a dumb decision” a few too many times in your life, you might want to keep tabs on this brain implant that researchers are developing.The implant restored and in some cases even improved the ability of monkeys to make correct decisions when doing a memory task, even when they were coked up (a condition that causes bad decisions).

The study was published today, Sept. 14, in the Journal of Neural Engineering. They studied the decision-making abilities of specially trained monkeys, as described in a statement from the Institute of Physics:

In the delayed match-to-sample task an image was flashed onto a screen and, after a delay, the monkeys were prompted to select the same image on the screen from a sampling which included 1-7 other images. Five monkeys (all rhesus, Macaca mulatta) were involved in the experiment and were trained for two years to perform to a 70-75 per cent proficiency in the task.

After learning the task, the monkeys had electrodes implanted in an area of the brain that’s involved in decision making. The researchers were able to monitor the activity in the monkey’s brains, and used that information to figure out the sequence of activity that happens when the monkey makes the correct decision.

The researchers then gave the monkeys cocaine, which impairs their ability to make decisions, and had them perform their matching task again. On the drug, the monkeys made more mistakes — their performance went down about 13 per cent.

When the monkeys were going to make a mistake, the researchers stimulated the decision-making area of their brain with the activity patterns that they had seen when the monkeys made the right choice. They were able to get the monkeys to make good decisions again, even when they were drugged up. Some even improved their performance on the decision-making task 10 per cent or more.

“We specifically ‘tuned’ the model to analyse the firing of neurons that occurred when the animals correctly performed the behavioural task; the brain doesn’t always produce the full ‘correct’ pattern on every trial,” study researcher Sam Deadwyler said in a statement. When it didn’t produce the right pattern, the implant would step in and send the signal.

The technique isn’t just for drugged up monkeys: “In the case of brain injury or disease where larger areas are affected, the system would record the inputs to that area from other areas and, when they occur, program the delivery of the appropriate output patterns to brain regions that normally receive signals from the injured area, thereby restoring lost brain function,” Deadwyler said.

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