Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the United States Department of Defense, is funding two major research initiatives to create implantable electronic devices to monitor andtreat seven different psychiatric disorders, including addiction, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain.
The DARPA SUBNETS (Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies) program has committed $12 million, plus an additional $26 million if performance benchmarks are met, to the projects, which will be led by research teams at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), respectively. The project will also involve researchers, physicians, and engineers at the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University at Ithaca, New York, and New York University. Assistance from California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will also be obtained under a cooperative agreement.
White House BRAIN Initiative
The research projects fall under President Barack Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, launched in April, 2013, which is intended to expand the understanding of the human brain based on the way individual cells and complex neural circuits interact. The hope is that this will accelerate development and application of new technologies. The first phase on the BRAIN initiative is to improve real-time imaging of neural circuits and improve knowledge of the rapid-fire cellular interactions in the human brain. The hope is that this will reveal the mechanisms underlying brain diseases and mental health disorders, shedding light on how brain function is linked to behavior and learning.
Deep Brain Stimulation
The projects were inspired by existing Deep Brain Stimulation technology, which is used primarily to control epileptic seizures, and to treat about 100,000 people world-wide for Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder. The five-year DARPA-funded projects will make use of existing technologies as a springboard for further research to develop advanced electronic brain interfaces, and create clinical interventions that affect networks within the brain instead of strictly focusing on anatomical areas. This may result in new treatments for a range of mental health disorders.
The DARPA-funded research project will examine the interaction of the parts of the brain in mental illnesses in a new way. The recordings made by high-resolution devices placed in the brains of the affected individuals will reveal in-depth the transition in brain activity when a person enters a depressed or anxious state from a normal state. Although the treatment approach of this project is built on current deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy used to treat movement disorders’ treatment and other conditions, the overall goal of this new project is to make major advancements in the effectiveness and preciseness of the neural stimulation therapy for mental health disorders. While current DBS therapy relies on permanent implants, these new projects will investigate the possibility that by adequately strengthening the healthy neural circuits, temporary implants may cause the brain to remodel itself and alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders.
New miniature implantable devices will be designed and implanted in the brain to gain information about neural circuits responsible for psychiatric disorders. These devices, known as brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), will record neural activity in detail. This recorded information will be the foundation for development of effective neural stimulation therapies such as the therapeutic brain chips, which can be used in a guided and precise manner to correct abnormal activity in the human brain. It is hoped that the use of novel electrical stimulation techniques, the brain would unlearn the disrupted signaling patterns that are regarded as the basis of mental diseases.
Researchers plan to initially record neural activity in various regions of the brain associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms found in people with Parkinson’s disease and treatment-resistant epilepsy. After the identification of aberrant brain signaling pathways associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression, researchers hope to develop devices for providing precise and effective brain stimulation to treat such symptoms. Building on the relatively recent discovery of neural plasticity, which means that the brain changes continually, the concept is that electronic stimulation will help guide the brain remodel itself to strengthen alternative neural circuits. The newly strengthened alternative neural circuits, developed by the use of deep brain stimulation, will bypass the signals associated with mental illnesses, eliminating symptoms.
Every year, common psychiatric disorders have a major significant economic impact. More than $42 two billion dollars, or roughly one-third of U.S. spending on mental illness, goes toward the treatment of anxiety disorders, which are the most common mental health disorders in the country, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). About 40 million adult Americans are affected by anxiety disorders. At any given point in time, about three to five percent of people suffer from major depression. Existing treatments for mental illness, which include psychotherapy and medications, are not helpful for all affected people. Significant numbers of people are categorized as having treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders which negatively affect their personal and professional lives.
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