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Record. Replay. Remember.

“We know we can augment memories. Our hope is to make a convenient and fun piece of technology that people suffering from memory loss can use to remember daily events of their lives.”

Cognitive neuroscientist Morgan Barense. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

A U of T researcher and her team have developed an app that combines neuroscience with smartphone technology to sharpen memories for people of all ages and could even help combat the looming Alzheimer’s epidemic.

The Hippocamera is a digital memory augmentation device that functions like the brain’s hippocampus, broadcasting video memories to cortical regions in the brain, where they are preserved for later recall.

“We know we can augment memories. Our hope is to make a convenient and fun piece of technology that people suffering from memory loss can use to remember daily events of their lives,” says Morgan Barense, an associate professor and cognitive neuroscientist in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

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Twelve University of Toronto researchers — including two from the Faculty of Arts & Science — have been awarded funding through the Connaught Innovation Award program, which recognizes and supports promising technologies that have strong socio-economic or commercial potential.

Barense and her team were recently awarded a Connaught Innovation Award for the app, one of 12 projects sharing in almost $600,000 in funding for promising technologies that have strong socio-economic or commercial potential.

Alzheimer’s disease damages the brain’s hippocampus and impairs memory storage —but the disease leaves cortical areas relatively preserved. By using the Hippocamera as a memory storage aid, memories can be “played back” at a later time to the brain’s cortical regions.

The Hippocamera enhances the storage of a memory, as the smartphone app captures an event on video and replays it to the user on an optimized schedule, so the memory remains vivid and retrievable.

Like links in a chain, memories are also strung together in the brain by associations, adds Barense, the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and the 2018 co-recipient of the Young Investigator Award from the international Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS).

If you can retrieve one memory, the hope is that will bring other memories to the surface.

“If you can retrieve one memory, the hope is that will bring other memories to the surface.”

Even people unaffected by the disease could benefit from the Hippocamera.

Testing of the Hippocamera at U of T has demonstrated it is effective in helping people with normal memory and also those with early signs of cognitive decline.

But people starting to show signs of Alzheimer’s related decline stand to benefit the most from Hippocamera research.

Alzheimer’s disease costs $33 billion a year in Canada and the impact is projected to grow to $293 billion by 2040 as the baby boomer generation continues to age.

Social interaction is one of the best things people can do to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, and the Hippocamera encourages socializing by helping restore the “coherent life narrative” that is lost when memory fails.

The next step will be to roll out the app to nursing homes for testing. Future enhancements could also include something like smart glasses — think next-generation Google Glass — and “machine vision” to make the digital memory augmentation device more intelligent, in association with a cloud computing network.

“We’re not hardware engineers, we’re memory scientists,” says Barense. “But the hope is that the underlying core of the device will be developed by people who do that for a living, informed by our cognitive and memory neuroscience.”

Although the Hippocamera is protected by patent, she plans to make a version of the app available for free.

It just feels like really important work given we are on the brink of an Alzheimer’s epidemic.

“It just feels like really important work given we are on the brink of an Alzheimer’s epidemic,” she says. “Diseases like Alzheimer’s lay bare the vulnerability of humans.”

Elderly and older adults do not get as much research and advocacy as other groups, but aging baby boomers will demand better as they are increasingly affected by dementia-related diseases, says Barense.

She feels passionate about protecting the basic science that is the foundation of her research, and fears it is getting harder to convince granting bodies to fund the unheralded work behind the breakthroughs.

“These advances to health care would not be possible if not for decades of basic science.”

As a mother of three playing a prominent role in STEM research, Barense also feels strongly about serving as a role model for female students.

“When I was a trainee, I had very few role models who were both mothers and successful neuroscientists,” she says. “I’d like to get the message out that the two are not mutually exclusive.”