If you have watched Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet get their memories of each other erased in the 2004 sci-fi movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, only to ironically fall in love with each other again, or the Netflix anthology series Black Mirror, you may have asked yourself whether today’s technology is advanced enough to manipulate the human brain and even alter memories.

The answer is yes. More than five years back, neuroscientists at the Riken-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrated that they could plant false memories in the brains of mice. While painful memories could be erased with this technology, unscrupulous people could use it to implant false memories and brainwash a whole population.

Even as advancements in technology such as brain-computer interfaces and sensor-lined caps with neural interface software could soon be used by brain researchers to control computers, robotic prosthetic limbs, motorized wheelchairs and even digital avatars, cyberattackers may be able to exploit memory implants to steal, spy on, alter or control human memories. And while the most radical threats are several decades away, the essential technology already exists in the form of implantable deep brain stimulation devices, according to a 1 November report by researchers from Kaspersky Lab and the University of Oxford Functional Neurosurgery Group.

As scientists learn how memories are created in the brain and can be targeted, restored and enhanced using such implantable devices, they simultaneously caution that vulnerabilities exist in the connected software and hardware and “these need to be addressed if we are to be ready for the threats that lie ahead".

Known as implantable pulse generators or neurostimulators, these contraptions send electrical impulses to specific targets in the brain to treat disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, major depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The latest generation of these implants comes with management software for both clinicians and patients. They are installed on tablets and smartphones and connect via Bluetooth.

This exposes them to “serious vulnerabilities" such as “several worrying misconfigurations in an online management platform popular with surgical teams that could lead an attacker to sensitive data and treatment procedures", “insecure or unencrypted data transfer between the implant, the programming software, and any associated networks", according to the Kaspersky and Oxford University researchers.

“Manipulation could result in changed settings causing pain, paralysis or the theft of private and confidential personal data," the researchers caution.

Dmitry Galov, junior security researcher at Kaspersky Lab, insists that “current vulnerabilities matter because the technology that exists today is the foundation for what will exist in the future". 

Laurie Pycroft, doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford Functional Neurosurgery Group, corroborates: “Memory prostheses are only a question of time. Collaborating to understand and address emerging risks and vulnerabilities, and doing so while this technology is still relatively new, will pay off in the future."

Within five years, for instance, scientists expect to be able to electronically record the brain signals that build memories and then enhance or even rewrite them before putting them back into the brain.

A decade from now, the first commercial memory boosting implants could appear on the market and, within 20 years or so, the technology could be advanced enough to allow for extensive control over memories, according to the researchers.

Scientists such as Ken Hayworth, a cognitive neuroscientist and president of Brain Preservation Foundation (brainpreservation.org), are not only trying to understand the brain but also preserve it for posterity and eventually upload a human mind into a machine if a human being so desires.

However, if hackers can alter memories, it would defeat the purpose.

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