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1st November 2013

DARPA to research brain implants

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is seeking to develop new technology to enable near real-time measurement and analysis of brain systems, for use in precise neural stimulation therapies.




Despite our best efforts to protect the health of U.S. service members and veterans, the effects of neuropsychological illness brought on by war, traumatic injuries and other experiences are not always easily treated. While current approaches can often help to alleviate the worst effects of these illnesses, they are imprecise and not universally effective. Demand for new therapies is high, as mental disorders are the leading cause of hospital bed days and the second leading cause of medical encounters for active duty service members. Among veterans, ten percent of those receiving treatment from the Veterans’ Health Administration are provided mental health care or substance abuse counselling.

DARPA has created the Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program to pursue advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology that could lead to new clinical understanding of how neuropsychological illnesses manifest in the brain – and to advanced therapies to reduce the burden and severity of illnesses in troops and veterans. This program will attempt to establish the characteristics of distributed neural systems, and develop therapies based on near real-time recording, analysis and stimulation using next-generation devices inspired by Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).

DBS already exists as a therapy option for certain neurologic and neuropsychological illnesses in patients who are not responsive to other therapies. Approximately 100,000 people around the globe live with a DBS implant – a device that delivers electrical stimulation to reduce the motor impairment caused by Parkinson's disease and dystonia. These devices are also being studied as therapy for depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s and epilepsy.


deep brain stimulation dbs


Despite recent advances, clinicians and researchers remain limited by the tools available to study, understand and treat systems of the brain. To achieve maximum benefit, they are often forced to complete a slow, repetitive and imprecise cycle of observing behaviours and then fine-tuning drug or behavioural therapy until the effects of a disease are reduced. The science has, until now, been largely based on a century of identifying associations between complex behaviours and diffuse understanding of the brain.

SUBNETS will seek to move beyond this limited understanding, to create interventions based on new insights that can be gained from the intersection of neuroscience, neurotechnology and clinical therapy. While there is no question that brain activity, anatomy and behaviour are functionally linked, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that many neural and behavioural processes are not localised to specific anatomical regions – but are emergent from systems that span several regions of the brain. SUBNETS will establish the capability to record and model how these systems function.




DARPA is specifically interested in the underlying systems which contribute to the following conditions: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Major Depression, Borderline Personality Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder. DARPA also seeks to evaluate the representation in the central nervous system of: Traumatic Brain Injury, Substance Abuse/Addiction and Fibromyalgia/Chronic Pain.

“If SUBNETS is successful, it will advance neuropsychiatry beyond the realm of dialogue-driven observations and resultant trial and error, and into the realm of therapy driven by quantifiable characteristics of neural state,” said Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager. “SUBNETS is a push toward innovative, informed and precise neurotechnological therapy to produce major improvements in quality of life for service members and veterans who have very few options with existing therapies. These are patients for whom current medical understanding of diseases like chronic pain or fatigue, unmanageable depression or severe post-traumatic stress disorder can't provide meaningful relief.”

As described in a broad agency announcement, the work will require development of novel medical hardware, complex modelling of human neural systems, clinical neurology and animal research. DARPA expects that successful teams will span across disciplines including psychiatry, neurosurgery, neural engineering, microelectronics, neuroscience, statistics and computational modelling.

“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,” Sanchez said. “SUBNETS is going to be a cross-disciplinary, expansive team effort and the program will integrate and build upon historical DARPA research investments.”

Because programs like SUBNETS push the leading edge of science, they are often society’s first encounter with the dilemmas associated with new technologies. DARPA understands the importance of considering ethical, legal, societal and policy questions. For that reason, the Agency has convened an Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) panel to inform and advise on emerging neuroscience efforts.

The SUBNETS project is part of the $100 million BRAIN Initiative announced by President Obama in April. DARPA hopes to have the brain implants developed within five years.


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