If you want to keep your memory sharp as you age you might want to try meditation, weight lifting, or keeping up your social connections. Or, in the near future, you might also be able to opt for a brain implant.

That's the prospect raised by new technology revealed at a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting (hat tip to Business Insider for the pointer). The device, developed by Dong Song, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California, consists of electrodes implanted directly in the brain. Tests show it can improve memory by up to 30 percent.

A memory prosthesis

Dong and his team tested their "memory prosthesis" by implanting the device in 20 patients who were already having brain implants placed to treat their epilepsy. The scientists then used the devices to gather data on patterns of brain activity that were associated with optimal memory function.

Finally, they used the implant to artificially mimic those patterns, using electricity to stimulate the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning and memory. When the devices were tuned up and turned on, the patients' scores on memory tests improved by up to 30 percent.

"We are writing the neural code to enhance memory function," Dong told New Scientist. "This has never been done before."

Today, Alzheimer's patients. Tomorrow, the rest of us?

That impressive bump in memory performance is good news for Alzheimer's and dementia patients, who the researchers hope to help with this technology.

"Further testing is required before Song's device could be approved as a treatment for dementia or Alzheimer's, but if it is able to help those patients regain even part of their lost memory function, the impact would be felt not only by the patients themselves, but their families and even the economy at large," says Science Alert, which notes that Alzheimer's was responsible for a whopping $236 billion in healthcare costs last year.

But while those suffering severe memory problems are obviously the first contenders for treatment with devices of this type, Science Alert also notes that these findings are part of a more general push toward performance-boosting brain implants that may soon be used by the healthy as well as the impaired.

"With everyone from Elon Musk to MIT to the US Department of Defense researching brain implants, it seems only a matter of time before such devices are ready to help humans extend their natural capabilities," notes the same article.

What's your take on the prospect of using brain implants to increase the cognitive performance of perfectly healthy people: exciting or creepy?

Published on: Nov 30, 2017