Daily Roundup: Neural Implants Help With Cognitive Function

Hot on the heels of the mixed press coverage of the ENCODE project is an EurekAlert article I’m very wary of taking seriously. Wake Forest University researchers claim to have created a prosthetic device that restores cognitive functions to primates whose capabilities have been impaired by injections of cocaine, in some cases to better than average.

Specifically, the monkeys involved were able to complete tasks correctly more often when they were stimulated by this prosthetic.

Before we begin talking about taking magic pills to help us in times of stressful decision making, let’s review the facts: the researchers set the monkeys to doing a task that involves matching a shape they’d seen a few minutes ago to an array of shapes, and they had been trained to achieve a 70-75% proficiency on this task for two years. Miracle cognitive therapy, this certainly isn’t.

But what I am interested in is how their prosthetic works. What are levels L2/3 and L5 of the brain and why are they important? How do they communicate, and why is that suppressed by cocaine (and why is dopamine involved in the first place?)

Most fascinatingly, how do you calculate the mathematical relationship between neuron levels? How is that even possible? And how do you tune a device like this to record during the correct input?

This, for me, is a classic example of a press release that promises so much and delivers tantalizingly little. Now I’m itching to speak to the scientists involved to ask them these questions.

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