These Scientists Are Making Brain Computers to Alter Memory

Francesca Billington

Francesca Billington is a freelance reporter. Prior to that, she was a general assignment reporter for dot.LA and has also reported for KCRW, the Santa Monica Daily Press and local publications in New Jersey. She graduated from Princeton in 2019 with a degree in anthropology.

These Scientists Are Making Brain Computers to Alter Memory

Researchers are getting closer to using bionics to treat patients with memory loss and depression, but they'll have to address some crucial questions before it's commercialized. That's what three neurology UCLA researchers and professors said during the dot.LA Summit panel "Building the Bionic Human in L.A." hosted by managing editor Rachel Uranga.

Most of these concerns have to do with the ethics, safety and security of implanting brain chips, which are designed to stimulate memory functions for patients with Alzheimer's or inhibit them for patients with PTSD.

And they were skeptical about Neuralink founder Elon Musk's promises to quickly bring to market a device that interfaces with the brain that Musk says could ease depression or other ailments. The bottom line, they said, was that there's still a gap between the technology and what researchers know about the brain.

"What are the guarantees that we can provide for these devices? Can I guarantee it'll work on ten out of ten patients and if not, is it worth the risk associated with the implant?" said Fabien Scalzo, assistant professor of neurology and computer science at UCLA. "I think there are still a lot of questions regarding that."

Each of the panelists focus on a different aspect of bionic engineering at UCLA: Scalzo works with a team to produce the hardware that Nader Pouratian implants into the brain. Meanwhile, Nanthia Suthana examines its effects on the patient's neurological functions.

Pouratian, a professor and vice chair of neurology at UCLA's school of medicine, said brain stimulation devices evolved from cardiac pacemakers, the first of which were developed in the 1970s.

"It's the same idea," he said. "We've been using that technology for over two decades. It hasn't changed radically in that time until very recently."

Today, engineers, scientists and neurosurgeons are rallying around an industry that's seen rapid growth. Specifically, they're working to stimulate the brain with greater precision and listen to brain activity, similar to the way doctors listen to the heart. The other key component of development includes improving the patient experience. Think scaling down the size of these devices and making them both wireless and rechargeable.

"The fear of brain stimulators has significantly diminished," said Pouratian. "As we expand and understand that better and make it safer, I think we're going to see it much more commonly accepted and sought after."

The devices in development are largely geared toward helping people with ongoing conditions, but Pouratian said he could see a day when people use them cosmetically to enhance memory, for example. The prospect could potentially expand human potential but would raise a whole host of concerns including access and the possibility of these devices being hacked.

Suthana, a UCLA assistant professor of neurosurgery and bioengineering, said some of the fears you hear surrounding bionic solutions might be premature.

"We're not quite where people might think we are in terms of doing these nefarious things that people suggest or 'Black Mirror' likes to show in their shows," she said. "But it's still absolutely critical to think about these things before we go down this road."

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.

LA Tech Week's Climate Panel Unveils Funding Secrets for Green Startups

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College. Send tips or pitches to and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

LA Tech Week's Climate Panel Unveils Funding Secrets for Green Startups
Samson Amore

In a region known for being a national trailblazer when it comes to climate policies, there’s no shortage of green energy startups in L.A. looking for funding. There’s also a plethora of investors and incubators, which means founders looking for cash flow should be extra specific about their value proposition when they pitch to cut through the noise. At least that was the message coming from the panelists at the UCLA Anderson School of Management on Tuesday.

Read more Show less
Here's What People Are Saying About Day Two of LA Tech Week
Evan Xie

L.A. Tech Week has brought venture capitalists, founders and entrepreneurs from around the world to the California coast. With so many tech nerds in one place, it's easy to laugh, joke and reminisce about the future of tech in SoCal.

Here's what people are saying about day two of L.A. Tech Week on social:

Read more Show less

LA Tech Week: Technology and Storytelling for Social Good

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

LA Tech Week: Technology and Storytelling for Social Good
Photo taken by Decerry Donato

On Monday, Los Angeles-based philanthropic organization Goldhirsh Foundation hosted the Technology and Storytelling For Social Good panel at Creative Visions studio to kick off LA Tech week.

Tara Roth, president of the foundation, moderated the panel and gathered nonprofit and tech leaders including Paul Lanctot, web developer of The Debt Collective; Alexis Cabrera, executive director of 9 Dots; Sabra Williams, co-founder of Creative Acts; and Laura Gonzalez, senior program manager of Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI).

Each of the panelists are grantees of Goldhirsh Foundation’s LA2050, an initiative launched in 2011 that is continuously trying to drive and track progress toward a shared vision for the future of Los Angeles. Goldhirsh’s vision is to make Los Angeles better for all and in order to achieve their goal, the foundation makes investments into organizations, creates partnerships and utilizes social capital through community events.

The panelists shared how the work they are doing in each of their respective sectors uses technology to solve some of society's most pressing challenges and highlight the importance of tech literacy across every community.

Read more Show less