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Military Plans To Test Brain Implants To Fight Mental Disorders

May 27, 2014
Originally published on May 27, 2014 12:35 pm

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is launching a $70 million program to help military personnel with psychiatric disorders using electronic devices implanted in the brain.

The goal of the five-year program is to develop new ways of treating problems including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which are common among service members who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"We've seen far too many times where military personnel have neuropsychiatric disorders and there's very few options," says Justin Sanchez, a program manager at DARPA.

DARPA is known for taking on big technological challenges, from missile defense to creating a business plan for interstellar travel. In 2013, the agency announced it would play a big role in President Obama's initiative to explore the human brain.

The new program will fund development of high-tech implanted devices able to both monitor and electrically stimulate specific brain circuits. The effort will be led by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Simple brain stimulation devices are already used to help patients with problems including Parkinson's disease. But DARPA wants something much more sophisticated, Sanchez says.

"While those devices have been shown to be effective, they are very much built on concepts from the cardiac pacemaker industry," he says. "And we know that the brain is very different than the heart."

Working With Epilepsy, Parkinson's Patients

The UCSF team will begin its work by studying volunteers who already have probes in their brains as part of treatment for epilepsy or Parkinson's disease.

That will allow researchers to "record directly from the brain at a level of resolution that's never [been] done before," says Eddie Chang, a neurosurgeon at UCSF.

By monitoring the electrical activity of brain cells, the researchers will be able to study how brain circuits behave in real time, Chang says. And because many of the volunteers also have depression, anxiety and other problems, it should be possible to figure out how these conditions have changed specific circuits in the brain, Chang says.

"If we are able to understand how the circuit has gone awry, that may give us some very critical clues as to how we may be able to reverse that," he says.

Once the scientists have those clues, they hope to design tiny electronic implants that can stimulate the cells in faulty brain circuits. "We know that once you start putting stimulation into the brain, the brain will change in response," Chang says.

That sort of change, known as plasticity, is what allows the brain to learn and adapt throughout our lives. And a device that can deliver the right kind of stimulation to the right brain cells should be able to "heal" malfunctioning brain circuits, Chang says.

At first, the DARPA program will focus on patients with depression, anxiety and symptoms of PTSD. Later, the plan calls for treating conditions including chronic pain and even traumatic brain injury.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Today, the U.S. military is announcing a program to help people with psychiatric disorders. It will involve electronic devices implanted in the brain. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - you can call them DARPA - is behind the effort. The goal here is to find a new way to treat problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: DARPA is known for taking on big technological challenges from missile defense to inter-stellar travel. A year ago, the agency pledged support for President Obama's initiative to explore the human brain. Justin Sanchez of DARPA says one reason for the support is the agency's belief that existing psychiatric treatments for veterans and people in the military are inadequate.

JUSTIN SANCHEZ: We have seen far too many times where military personnel have neuropsychiatric, you know, disorders, and there's very few options for those individuals. And at DARPA, we think that, you know, we have to go well beyond what is currently available.

HAMILTON: DARPA plans to spend at least $26 million to develop implanted devices able to monitor and electrically stimulate specific brain circuits. Brain stimulation devices are already used to help patients with problems like Parkinson's disease. But Sanchez says DARPA wants something much more sophisticated. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say the cost of the five-year program is $26 million. It's actually $70 million; $26 million is the amount for the UCSF part of the research.]

SANCHEZ: While those devices have shown to be effective, they're very much built upon concepts from the cardiac pacemaker industry. And, you know, we know that the brain is very different than the heart. And we also know that neuropsychiatric illnesses affect many parts of the brain.

HAMILTON: So DARPA has teamed up with scientists at the University of California San Francisco and Massachusetts General Hospital to create better brain stimulators. Eddie Chang, a neurosurgeon at UCSF, says his team will study volunteers who already have probes in their brains as part of their treatment for epilepsy or Parkinson's. Chang says that makes it possible to watch brain circuits in action.

EDDIE CHANG: What it allowed us to do was to record directly from the brain at a level of resolution that's never done before.

HAMILTON: Many of these volunteers also have depression, anxiety and other problems that are common among military personnel. So Chang says it should be possible to figure out how these conditions have changed specific circuits in the brain.

CHANG: If we were able to understand how the circuit has gone awry, that may give us some very critical clues as to how we might be able to reverse that.

HAMILTON: Using electrical stimulation of specific areas.

CHANG: We know that once you start putting stimulation into the brain, the brain will change in response to that.

HAMILTON: That sort of change is what allows the brain to learn and adapt throughout our lives. And Chang says the right kind of stimulation delivered in just the right way should be able to provide some relief to patients by making the brain circuits work better.

CHANG: And ultimately, hopefully, completely heal the circuits. Essentially, help the brain un-learn some of these really catastrophic forms of neuropathology.

HAMILTON: Like PTSD or even chronic pain. Chang says he expects to begin enrolling patients within a week. DARPA wants a working implant within five years. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.