“MemCatcher” Clinical Trial - From a Media Lab-MGH researcher’s perspective (Thu, Dec 8, 2061)
“Iris verified. Good morning, Dr. Lee.”
It was 8:05 AM when I walked into the MGH brain scanning center. Today an Alzheimer's patient would make her final visit for memory recording, marking the end of our phase III clinical trial of the “non-invasive human brain functional connectome mapping technique”, or simpler, the “MemCatcher”. I must make sure all equipment functioned perfectly before the patient arrived.
Invented by my group in the Media Lab a few years back, the “MemCatcher '' allows scientists to record the real-time cellular functional activity of a patient’s brain and reconstruct his/her memory. This unprecedented breakthrough relies on recent advances in metabolizable X-ray range neural activity indicators, high-speed large scanning sensors, and parallel reconstruction algorithms for quantum computers. As a key clinical application, memories were restored and rewritten to Alzheimer’s patients’ brains to compensate for progressive memory loss.
The scanner system was working well. I grabbed a cup of coffee back to my office monitor and took a skim on my calendar – clearly, I would have a fully occupied week. As I was enjoying my precious short break, the office door was knocked and opened. A guidance robot came in.
“Dr. Lee, the patient is waiting in the scanner room.”
I put my coffee down and walked to the next room. A thin, gray-haired old lady in her 70's, sat on the waiting chair, with a four feet high white human-shape care robot standing aside. They visited here three days ago to receive the activity indicator injection—it will take 72 hours for the molecules to diffuse evenly and to attach to neuron’s membranes throughout the brain for memory recording.
“Great to see you again, Mrs. Clark. I hope you are doing well.” I greeted my patient.
“Good morning, Dr. …uh…”
“Lee, madam. Please relax and lay down on this bed. The scanning will take a few hours, but we can have short breaks in the middle.” I guided her to the patient bed of the MemCatcher scanner, which looked just like an fMRI machine that was used a few decades ago.
After the patient got ready, I started the scanner. The scanning process consisted of two steps. First, a slow scan that lasted for around one hour would generate an accurate static connectome of the patient’s brain. The following would be the functional activity recording for dynamic connectivity mapping. During the second step, the patient would be shown some specially designed visuals and audios to help her recall the memories that she wanted to catch most. Depending on the patient’s brain state and how much memory we needed to record, the whole scanning process could take 2-6 hours.
The old lady had been fighting with familial Alzheimer’s since her 50s. The stem cell therapy had greatly slowed the degenerative process during the past 20 years but not for any time longer. As the last option, she hoped to record her memories before she gradually lost them. Even though those recorded memories could not be fully restored back in her later brain using the “MemWriter” headset, she could at least share and pass those memories to her family.
Memory #2061-12-08;12:35 - “TeleTaste” (in 2050s, memory log of Mrs. Clark)
“We are now asking the audience to vote for their favourite flavour! If you are a Teletaste subscriber, pick up your remotes and taste now. Once you know your favourite, submit your vote for who should be crowned the 2050 winner of SooSweet!!” Dramatic music played aloud as they giggled and grabbed for their remotes.
Amelie pressed ‘1’ and tentatively raised the remote to her tongue. “Actually — not bad! Mom! You give it a try! It’s a bit on the sweeter side, but it’s nice!” She took her own remote and proceeded to taste it. To her surprise, the taste of salted caramel with a hint of dark chocolate greeted her tongue. They thumbed through the different ice cream flavours that the show contestants crafted. She sighed with content. As a little girl, she remembered watching the TV wistfully as the chefs did their magic and gave samples of their food to the lucky live audience members to try. She was so surprised when her daughter had presented her with Teletaste remotes for her early birthday present.
It was an exciting time as a burgeoning array of taste-enabled devices and services hit the market. In fact, she remembered how surprised she was when her sister and brother-in-law, who were typically resistant to adopting the latest tech, had jumped on board with getting their own Teletaste utensils. These utensils took social media by storm and were all the rage amongst fitness and nutrition gurus. Those looking to keep their levels of sodium and sugar in check were promoting eating with these special utensils. They paired with an app that could be tweaked and would learn consumers’ preferences. For example, an ‘extra sprinkle of salt’ could be artificially added to make one’s food tastier. Everything from Italian wedding soup to Chinese noodles could be given an extra zing without actually needing to add the ingredient. Instead, embedded electrodes would mildly stimulate taste buds on people’s tongues to create the sensation of saltiness.
Her sister and brother-in-law swore by it. The utensils helped them cut down their sodium intake and lower their blood pressure -- much to the pleasure of their doctors and to the relief of their taste buds. She remembered how they proudly packed the utensils to take everywhere, from people’s houses to restaurants. They laughed, saying the utensils even helped their marriage. Rather than fight over how much salt or spice to add to their home cooking, the utensils let them customize the flavour of their food to satisfy their own preferences while keeping them healthy. It also had the added benefit that they reduced their use of disposable cutlery.
Even restaurants themselves would play along with the idea. She remembered that she spent one snowy afternoon with her grandson, Jerry, at the coffee shop. They tried the “Christmas Mixer Mug” that changed the flavour of their drinks to match the music playing indoors. Her favourite was when the song “Last Christmas” filled the room, and she could taste hints of chocolate and mint. “All I Want for Christmas” was her second favourite - it was particularly sweet with a hazelnut aroma. The two of them had the idea to play a game with each other. They took turns blocking their ears, signalling to each other what song they thought was playing based off of the taste. They realized that it was hilariously arbitrary, but nevertheless it made for a lot of fun. It was also pretty neat that all those flavours could be experienced over the course of a single drink! It would become one of their special Christmas traditions over the years.
The technology was also taken up for children’s gaming and education. Apps on the phone, paired with a device that looked like a lollipop, were being used for teaching children to read. She was stunned the first time she saw a child use one. “Tangerine!” squealed a little girl as a small orange fruit appeared on a screen. The little lollipop toy lit up orange in her hands, and she popped it in her mouth to taste a sweet citrus flavour. With each new word, children would unlock an accompanying taste. People swore that it helped kids to learn new vocabulary faster. The flavour and aroma cartridges were pretty pricey, but parents would relent to buying refills while watching the kids enjoy themselves. Everyone would also have a laugh when they saw children trying to taste things like “Shoes” for the first time. Their little noses would scrunch up at the bitter and ‘stinky’ taste.
As the scanner was working, I returned to my office to monitor the process. Transient red blinking patterns that represented activities were being updated in real-time on a 3D rendering of the patient’s brain. Although I had seen such images many times, I still could not stop but wonder what kind of memories were laid behind. The human brain is so complex that until recently we had not been able to decode it. Due to personal privacy concerns, the memory interpretation process was completely taken over by AI algorithms in a black-box, and I would never know any details of the memories that the old lady tries to save. There might be joyful times spent with her beloved ones, and dark moments filled with bitterness and sorrow. But if I were her, with memory gradually fading away in the final stage of life, all memories, no matter happy or sad, must be equally precious.
Memory #2061-12-08;14:35 - “PsycheWear”(in 2035s, memory log of Mrs. Clark)
Back in 2035, It was a mundane day at the office for Mr. Clark. Going through the documents, crunching numbers and deciding on what presentation to give to the board members the next week. All that with the pressure of nearing deadlines. This time of the year, the office is in full throttle. But Mr. Clark doesn't feel it.
‘Have you guys applied the patch yet?’, asks the manager. Mr. Clark turns around and says ‘Not yet’. ‘Here, this one is new sent over from corporate, something called as Zippity, they say it pumps your brain and you’ll get through the work in no time’, the manager passes the patch to Mr. Clark. ‘But do we need to take it?’, asks Tom from the neighboring cubicle. ‘You don't have to, but if you wanna go through the work I guess you need to’, the manager replies. ‘Your focus will be 10 times higher for the next multiple hours but your memory will be fuzzy for the night’. ’But we need to finish the reports and assign tasks for the bots today, else corporate won't be happy’. Seeing all the pressure, all coworkers along with Mr. Clark apply the patch.
This new technology called ‘PsycheWear’ or ‘Patch’ has been a work of years of research of transdermal micro-dosing, psychedelics and genetically modified compounds. These compounds are designed to target different parts of the brain for increasing or decreasing activity in that brain region. But while doing so, subsequent parts of the brain are affected to compensate for the energy utilized in the excited part. The patch sticks like a tattoo and delivers a small amount of drug. The drugs are designed to augment cognitive processes such as increasing focus, reducing stress or promoting sleep.
At the office the day goes by and the patch does its job. Most office workers are able to get through the work. ‘Leaving?’, asks the manager. Mr. Clark nods. ‘Just be careful, your memory will deteriorate a little bit for the night but everything should be normal by tomorrow morning, see you tomorrow’, the manager says as Mr. Clark leaves the office for home. Reaching home, Mr. Clark is exhausted. The patch’s side effects start taking toll on Mr. Clark’s declarative memories. He feels he is losing control on recalling things.
While sitting with his family for dinner, he shares how his day went but starts missing out on details. ‘Is there something wrong?’, asks Mrs. Clark. ‘Not sure what is causing me to feel weird in my head. But I remember my boss telling me that by tomorrow everything will be fine’. Asking a few more details and getting unclear answers, Mrs. Clark becomes concerned for her husband. She calls the manager to know what’s going on. ’It's just a side effect of the productivity patch Mr. Clark used today, no need to be worried’ explains the manager. In the night, feeling the stress about his office work, Mr. Clark takes another patch ’Sleepit’ to help him sleep.
Meanwhile, at the research laboratory which develops new compounds for the patches, researchers discuss the deadline for delivering a newer version of ‘Zippity’ for improving productivity, to the corporate.
The scanning was finally completed. It took longer than I had expected as the disease had already done some damage to the lady’s brain.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Mrs. Clark. We have collected enough information to restore your memory. The reconstructed memory data should be uploaded to your “MemWriter” headset by tomorrow.”
“Oh, thanks so much, Dr. Lee! Today's experience really brought something back to me, I remembered, …uh…, perhaps over 40 years ago, when I was a student in the Media Lab, I have read a course report that imagined the exact same techniques that we used today.”
“What a coincidence! I’ve also read an interesting 2020 prosem report proposing a similar technique with “MemCatcher”. Looking back, many of the visions proposed then have been realized now. Thanks for bringing these memories back to me.”
I escorted my patient out of our facility and emphasized again the usage of the memory data and the “MemWriter” headset. To compensate for gradual memory loss, the memory data should be “replayed” in the brain in the deep sleep state twice a week using the headset. But I knew even doing so could only slow the progress of memory loss, as the brain tissue underwent irreversible progressive degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease.
It was 5:10 PM when I returned to my office. The computer was still in full load decoding the collected data into memories. Even with new acceleration algorithms and a quantum processing unit handling the core computational task, the extreme complexity of a human brain would extend the computation overnight.
“Dr., it’s time to leave work a little early today. Don’t miss your 9 AM meeting with Pentagon officials tomorrow.” Said my AI assistant from my watch.
Yes, I had better leave now, as I will have to catch up on the earliest hype-train to Washington D.C. tomorrow morning. Thinking of this, I packed my bag, left the MGH brain complex, and headed to the shuttle station.
Family Reunion - (Sat, Dec 22, 2070)
The wrinkles etched on her forehead whispered stories of many exciting life experiences. They deepened on Mrs. Clark’s face as she furrowed her brows and slowly lowered herself onto the sofa. Her daughter and grandchildren shuffled into the room. Although her head felt a little heavy, she felt gratitude swelling in her heart. The bright smiles of her family members beamed in the warm glow cast by their fireplace in their living room.
“Storytime! Storytime!” squeaked Emma, bouncing on the seat next to her. She had been the first to scurry into the room and flop onto the sofa, brandishing her Teletaste lollipop that glowed a blueberry blue. As everyone settled in, Jerry took the special seat on the other side of her. “Grandma, can you tell me what the Media Lab was like when you were there? Were the groups the same as they are now?”
She cracked a slow smile. “Oh, it was a different time Jerry… in fact, when I woke up today, I recalled something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Now that it is your time, I wanted to share this special memory with all of you...” Everyone’s hands shot out and reached for one of the many headsets that had been scattered across the coffee table. They took a moment to position it on their heads. The headsets allowed them to see, in their mind's-eye, memories that had been stored and reconstructed via MemCatcher. Storytime had been the highlight of every evening during their family get together -- so much so that they didn’t bother to pack them away neatly into their boxes anymore. It was always so exciting and precious to experience what Grandma could remember from her past.
“Hey guys! It’s been a super cool experience to be here with you all! I’m so glad I could help teach this class.” quipped a young lad wearing a special knitted sweater. “Who’s that mom? What are we seeing?” asked Amelie, with a smile. Grandma chuckled. “This was when I joined the Prosem course at the Media Lab 50 years ago, in the Fall of 2020 - and you’re looking at our TA!” Jerry nodded, watching and listening attentively. He saw the faces of a lot of people his age, each in their own little box. The boxes littered the glossy screen of what seemed to be an old-fashioned laptop. The people on the screen were having a candid discussion about the future - and specifically about the future of the Media Lab. Jerry’s eyes widened when he heard the term “PsycheTelic Interfaces”. “Grandma - is that you? You and your friends thought up the group I applied for?!”