The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a US$70 million project to develop an implant to monitor neuronal activity in a bid to improve the mental health of soldiers and veterans.
There is a high incidence of mental illness among soldiers compared with the general population — in fact, one in nine medical discharges is because of mental illness. This is not surprising — if you ask people to do and see horrific things, it's going to mess with their heads in pretty significant ways.
DARPA is seeking to understand more about how the brain works in the hope of developing effective therapies for troops and veterans. It has announced a new project called the Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS).
SUBNETS is inspired by Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), a surgical treatment that involves implanting a brain pacemaker in the patient's skull to interfere with brain activity to help with symptoms of diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson's. DARPA's device will be similar, but rather than targeting one specific symptom, it will be able to monitor and analyse data in real time and issue a specific intervention according to brain activity.
"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," DARPA program manager Justin Sanchez said. "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."
DARPA will collate data from volunteers seeking treatment for unrelated neurological disorders as well as clinical research participants to construct models of how the brain behaves both in normal and impaired conditions, with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, borderline personality disorder, general anxiety disorder, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse/addiction and fibromyalgia/chronic pain. It hopes to have its device ready in five years.
"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."