DARPA allocates $70 million for improving deep brain stimulation technology
In what appears to be an exclusive story, the New York Times has reported that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will spend $70 million over the next 5 years to further develop and improve deep brain stimulation (DBS) techniques. This funding is part of President Obama's BRAIN Initiative.
Agency Initiative Will Focus on Advancing Deep Brain Stimulation
By JAMES GORMAN
Published: October 24, 2013
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The federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as Darpa, announced Thursday that it intended to spend more than $70 million over five years to jump to the next level of brain implants, either by improving deep brain stimulation or by developing new technology.
Justin Sanchez, Darpa program manager, said that for scientists now, "there is no technology that can acquire signals that can tell them precisely what is going on with the brain."
And so, he said, Darpa is "trying to change the game on how we approach these kinds of problems."
The new program, called Systems-Based Neurotechnology and Understanding for the Treatment of Neuropsychological Illnesses, is part of an Obama administration brain initiative, announced earlier this year, intended to promote innovative basic neuroscience. Participants in the initiative include Darpa, as well as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
The announcement of Darpa's goal is the first indication of how that research agency will participate in the initiative. The money is expected to be divided among different teams, and research proposals are now being sought.
I couldn't find a news announcement on DARPA's website or a request for research proposals. The program hasn't even been mentioned in their Twitter feed!
On the other hand, the NIH Director's BRAIN Advisory Committee issued its Interim Report (PDF) on September 16. The report is focused primarily on animal models, including improved technologies for recording neuronal activity and manipulating circuit function. Section 6d mentions Devices for Monitoring and Stimulating the Human Brain, but mostly in the context of recruiting patients as research participants.1
DARPA tends to fund, shall we say, very ambitious (and unorthodox) research projects. For BRAIN, they want to develop a device that can monitor and detect the symptoms of a psychiatric illness, deliver appropriate DBS, and record neural activity to determine whether the treatment was successful.2 The article continues:
Darpa's goal would require solving several longstanding problems in neuroscience, one of which is to develop a detailed model of how injuries or illnesses like depression manifest themselves in the systems of the brain.
The next step is to create a device that can monitor the signs of illness or injury in real time, treat them appropriately and measure the effects of the treatment. The result would be something like a highly sophisticated pacemaker for a brain disorder.
Darpa is asking for research teams to produce a device ready to be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval within five years.
"Is it overambitious? Of course," said Dr. Mayberg, adding that working with the brain is "a slow process." But she said that it was an impressive first investment and that the clear emphasis on human illness was "stunning."
The driving force of the research program is to improve treatments for combat veterans who suffer from mental and physical conditions. These are pressing needs for DARPA, problems that warrant immediate solutions. This is one government agency that doesn't want to wait around for "a slow process" to yield results...
1 Oddly, the NYT article says NIH "has not decided on its emphasis, appears to be aiming for basic research, based on the recommendations from a working committee advising the agency." I thought the 58 page report provided detail on NIH's emphasis.
2 Perhaps they would also like a device to predict (and prevent) criminal offending, like in this rough sketch:
Is it possible for a brain scan to predict whether a recently paroled inmate will commit another crime within 4 years? A new study by Aharoni et al. (2013) suggests that the level of activity within the anterior cingulate cortex might provide a clue to whether a given offender will be rearrested.
Dress this up a bit and combine with a miniaturized brain-computer interface that continuously uploads EEG activity to the data center at a maximum security prison. There, machine learning algorithms determine with high accuracy whether a given pattern of neural oscillations signals the imminent intent to reoffend that will trigger deep brain stimulation in customized regions of prefrontal cortex, and you have the plot for a 1990s cyberpunk novel.
Kevin McGrew, PhD