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Military Plans To Test Brain Implants To Fight Mental Disorders

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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Corrected: May 26, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
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.
Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.