Bioethics Blogs

Is memory enhancement right around the corner?

“Everyone has had the experience of struggling to remember long lists of items or complicated directions to get somewhere,” Dr. Justin Sanchez of DARPA said in a recent press release. “Today we are discovering how implantable neurotechnologies can facilitate the brain’s performance of these functions.” The US Department of Defense is interested in how the brain forms memories because hundreds of thousands of soldiers – or “warfighters” as they are now called – have suffered from traumatic brain injury (TBI) and some have severe memory problems. Beyond the military, TBI is a major public health concern that affects millions of Americans as patients and caregivers and is incredibly expensive. A breakthrough treatment is needed and for that, ambitious research is required.

But does this research agenda end at treating disease, or could these findings also be applied to memory enhancement goals?

Beyond helping us to grab all the items on the grocery list and find the car in the parking lot, our memories fundamentally help us to form our sense of identity and personal narrative. It is a common observation in profound dementias and Alzheimer’s disease, that family members feel like their loved one who has lost the ability to recall recent events or names or to form new memories is no longer the same person they once were. While this basic truth about the importance of memory is persuasive as an argument for the significance of this research, it also brings the risks involved sharply into focus: tinkering with an individual’s memories and their ability to form them can have the effect of profoundly altering their identity and sense of self.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.