The Military Is Building Brain Chips to Treat PTSD

The Defense Department is developing a new, mood-predicting brain chip to treat PTSD in soldiers.

U.S. soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of 2nd infantry division and South Korean soldiers from 6th Engineer Brigade participate in a river crossing exercise on May 30, 2013 in Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea. The joint exercise is for the first time in 10 years, eyeing possible attacks of North Korea.
National Journal
Patrick Tucker, Defense One
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Patrick Tucker, Defense One
May 29, 2014, 7:13 a.m.

How well can you pre­dict your next mood swing? How well can any­one? It’s an ex­ist­en­tial di­lemma for many of us but for the mil­it­ary, the abil­ity to treat anxi­ety, de­pres­sion, memory loss and the symp­toms as­so­ci­ated with post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­order has be­come one of the most im­port­ant battles of the post-war peri­od.

Now the Pentagon is de­vel­op­ing a new, in­nov­at­ive brain chip to treat PTSD in sol­diers and vet­er­ans that could bring sweep­ing new changes to the way de­pres­sion and anxi­ety is treated for mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans.

With $12 mil­lion (and the po­ten­tial for $26 mil­lion more if bench­marks are met), the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Pro­jects Agency, or DARPA, wants to reach deep in­to your brain’s soft tis­sue to re­cord, pre­dict and pos­sibly treat anxi­ety, de­pres­sion and oth­er mal­ad­ies of mood and mind. Teams from the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia at San Fran­cisco, Lawrence Liv­er­more Na­tion­al Lab and Medtron­ic will use the money to cre­ate a cy­ber­net­ic im­plant with elec­trodes ex­tend­ing in­to the brain. The mil­it­ary hopes to have a pro­to­type with­in 5 years and then plans to seekF­DA ap­prov­al.

DARPA’s Sys­tems-Based Neur­o­tech­no­logy for Emer­ging Ther­apies, or SUB­NETs, pro­gram draws from al­most a dec­ade of re­search in treat­ing dis­orders such as Par­kin­son’s dis­ease via a tech­nique called deep brain stim­u­la­tion. Low doses of elec­tri­city are sent deep in­to the brain in some­what the same way that a de­fib­ril­lat­or sends elec­tri­city to jump­start a heart after car­di­ac ar­rest.

While it sounds high-tech, it’s a crude ex­ample of what’s pos­sible with fu­ture brain-ma­chine in­ter­ac­tion and cy­ber­net­ic im­plants in the dec­ades ahead.

“DARPA is look­ing for ways to char­ac­ter­ize which re­gions come in­to play for dif­fer­ent con­di­tions ““ meas­ured from brain net­works down to the single neur­on level ““ and de­vel­op thera­peut­ic devices that can re­cord activ­ity, de­liv­er tar­geted stim­u­la­tion, and most im­port­antly, auto­mat­ic­ally ad­just ther­apy as the brain it­self changes,” DARPA pro­gram man­ager Justin Sanc­hez said .

SUB­NETs isn’t the only mil­it­ary re­search ini­ti­at­ive aimed at stim­u­lat­ing the brain with elec­tri­city. The Air Force has been study­ing the ef­fects of low amounts of elec­tri­city on the brain by us­ing a non-in­vas­ive in­ter­face (a cap that doesn’t pen­et­rate in­to the skull.) The ob­ject­ive is to de­liv­er a caf­feine-like boost to help sol­diers stay alert through long stretches of pi­lot­ing or screen in­ter­ac­tion. The cur­rent DARPA pro­ject stands out as uniquely am­bi­tious in what it prom­ises to re­veal about the brain, in ad­di­tion to stim­u­lat­ing it.

While neur­os­cient­ists are get­ting much bet­ter at us­ing, un­der­stand­ing and har­ness­ing the big elec­tric­al sig­nals that emerge from the brain’s mo­tor cor­tex, re­search that is rap­idly con­trib­ut­ing to much bet­ter pros­thet­ic arms, they still don’t have a clear un­der­stand­ing of the way brain re­gions work in mood dis­orders as­so­ci­ated with PTSD. We do know that anxi­ety ail­ments in­volve a del­ic­ate in­ter­play of memory (in the phys­ic­al form of syn­aptic con­nec­tions) and stim­uli and mani­fest across mul­tiple brain areas. Fur­ther­more, these re­sponses and in­ter­ac­tions can change as the very mal­le­able brain it­self ad­apts in un­pre­dict­able ways.

“Little is un­der­stood of how the brain’s neur­al cir­cuitry relates to anxi­ety and oth­er neuro­psy­chi­at­ric dis­orders. This pro­ject will seek to markedly im­prove that un­der­stand­ing by ob­tain­ing maps of the brain’s elec­tric­al activ­ity at high­er res­ol­u­tion than has been pre­vi­ously pos­sible. The ul­ti­mate im­pact on the treat­ment of ma­jor de­pres­sion, anxi­ety dis­orders, and oth­er con­di­tions re­mains to be seen, but a more clear un­der­stand­ing of the basis of these dis­orders is badly needed.” Ed­ward Chang, a neur­os­cient­ist at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia at San Fran­cisco told De­fense One.

The device would re­cord what hap­pens when a sub­ject trans­itions in­to a state of anxious­ness or de­pres­sion from a more nor­mal frame of mind. Today, ob­serving brain activ­ity that fine re­quires a bulky brain-mon­it­or­ing sys­tem like the mod­er­ately in­con­veni­ent but rather im­pre­cise EEG cap to the much more ro­bust mag­ne­to­en­ceph­al­o­graph, MEG, which can take very de­tailed read­ings of mag­net­ic brain activ­ity mil­li­second by mil­li­second. But com­monly avail­able MEGread­ers are enorm­ous, re­quire sev­er­al gal­lons of li­quid ni­tro­gen to stay cool and can cost around $4 mil­lion.

“‹”There is really no com­par­is­on between the vast amount of data you can get from an in­vas­ive deep brain im­plant (i.e. you cut open the skull and put one of more wires deep in­side) versus the smeared slow trickle of in­form­a­tion you can get from an­EEG cap out­side the”‹ skull. Chron­ic fMRI gives much more data, but is prac­tic­ally im­possible on any longer time scales (even hours) due to the cost of us­ing the ma­chine and the re­quired im­mob­il­ity of the sub­ject,” Uni­versity of Ari­zona neur­os­cient­ist Charles Hig­gins told De­fense One.

If the DARPA pro­gram is suc­cess­ful, it will yield new brain mon­it­or­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies that are ex­po­nen­tially cheap­er smal­ler, more use­ful and that col­lect data when the pa­tient is most likely to ac­tu­ally en­counter trau­mat­ic stim­uli, not just when he or she is in a lab-mak­ing data col­lec­tion much easi­er and the data more use­ful.

“With ex­ist­ing tech­no­logy, we can’t really re­cord anxi­ety level in­side the brain. We can po­ten­tially re­cord ad­ren­aline and cortisol levels in the blood­stream to meas­ure anxi­ety. However, if a deep brain im­plant is to be used (as pro­posed in this pro­ject), it might be pos­sible to mon­it­or activ­ity in the amy­g­dala, and this would be a dir­ect way of mon­it­or­ing anxi­ety,” said Hig­gins.

Us­ing that data, the re­search­ers hope to cre­ate mod­els and maps to al­low for a more pre­cise un­der­stand­ing of the elec­tric­al pat­terns in the brain that sig­nal anxi­ety, memory loss and de­pres­sion. The data from devices, when they come on­line, will be made avail­able to the pub­lic but will be rendered an­onym­ous, so re­cords of an in­di­vidu­al test sub­ject’s brain activ­ity could not be traced back to a spe­cif­ic per­son.

In short, re­search­ers will soon know much more about what causes anxi­ety and mood swings and will be able to pre­dict those trans­itions in spe­cif­ic pa­tients at spe­cif­ic times,. They could then treat de­pres­sion or anxi­ety, re­motely via a device that pushes the brain to es­tab­lish new cir­cuits and areas out­side of the trau­mat­ized re­gions. It may im­prove your mood in the fu­ture, even the thought of it is a bit dis­tress­ing today.

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