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The latest project from the futurists at DARPA takes a detour from the agency's typical dabblings in autonomous robots and artificially intelligent computers to focus on the health of actual humans. The agency announced its latest moonshot initiative today, a $70 million project to develop a new implantable electronic device that can be used to treat some of the mental disorders plaguing the US military.
The ambitious goal is to create a medical device within five years that can be implanted in the skull to monitor, analyze, and respond to real-time information on the brain, somewhat like a pacemaker for grey matter. That new level of insight into the human mind could lead to more effective treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders, researchers hope.
The Defense Department has good reason to devote such a large chunk of change to advancing neuroscience. Today, the leading cause of soldiers' hospital stays isn't physical injuries, but mental conditions like post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, DARPA said in its announcement.
The agency is turning to technology to better understand these problems. The project is part of the White House's BRAIN initiative to research the mind to uncover new treatments for mental health. President Obama’s budgeted $100 million for the first year, half of which will go to DARPA.
DARPA is hoping to either improve on current "deep brain stimulation" technology, or develop new ways to do it better. Doctors already use deep brain stimulation to treat certain neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease—some 100,000 Parkinson's patients in the world have chips in their brain today, the agency said. It works by sending electrical impulses to the affected areas of the brain to regulate abnormal impulses caused by the disorder. Researchers are also testing electronic chips to treat a number of other mental conditions, like depression, OCD, Tourette's, and epilepsy.
But the current technology is limited. The chips can't monitor how effective the stimulation treatment is; they can't "read" brain signals. That’s a hurdle for treating complex conditions like depression that’s don’t have obvious biological indicators. And while neurotechnology is advancing quickly, the human mind is still shrouded in mystery. Researchers today rely on a fuzzy understanding of the brain and trial-and-error approach to treat disease. “We're talking about a whole systems approach to the brain, not a disease-by-disease examination of a single process or a subset of processes,” DARPA program manager Justin Sanchez said in the announcement.
Pulling it off will require generating complex models of the brain systems. Luckily, scientists from the government and private companies have been on a tear in recent years trying to better understand the inner-workings of the mind. The White House's BRAIN initiative is just one of the big-budget, large-scale attempts to map the brain currently underway, and the military has invested heavily in a wide range of neurotechnology.
Researchers are also collecting unprecedented real-time information on the brain from EEG technology that essentially read the mind and transmit that data back to a computer for analysis. These "brain hacking" headpieces are becoming more advanced, increasingly commercialized and affordable, and are starting to be used to help treat mental conditions, namely ADHD.
DARPA's collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation on the project, called Systems-Based Neurotechnology and Understanding for the Treatment of Neuropsychological Illnesses.