DARPA targets mental illness with brain implants

Discovering and treating neuropsychological illness can be a difficult endeavor, but an ambitious Defense Advance Research Projects Agency project looks to understand these mental ailments with the most intense wearable technology yet — a device implanted into a subject’s head.

One of DARPA’s newest programs — Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies, or SUBNETS, which focuses on brain injuries — announced Tuesday that groups at the University of California-San Francisco and Massachusetts General Hospital will begin exploring the use of a new interface with Deep Brain Simulation technology to record and analyze the neural activity behind mental illness.

The initial plan calls for the device to be implanted between a patient’s scalp and skull with electrodes of varying length inserted into different regions of the brain, according to DARPA. A clinician could then observe the patient’s brain activity wirelessly.

The campuses in California and Massachusetts will lead teams of engineers, physicians and neuroscientists who will create the device and “clinical therapies for treating networks of the brain,” a DARPA release stated. The teams will begin their research with the understanding that targeted brain functions occur across neural systems and that the brain is constantly changing, contrary to earlier belief that it reached a static point.


“The brain is very different from all other organs because of its networking and adaptability,” said Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager for SUBNETS. “Real-time, closed-loop neural interfaces allow us to move beyond the traditional static view of the brain and into a realm of precision therapy. This lack of understanding of how mental illness specifically manifests in the brain has limited the effectiveness of existing treatment options, but through SUBNETS we hope to change that.”

Each of the bi-costal teams will use a different approach in their pursuit of an embeddable device and how it interacts with the brain. Researchers at UCSF will attempt to design an interface that targets regions of the brain associated with illnesses and stimulate plasticity to rehabilitate the neural circuit. And at MGH, researchers will observe common traits among neurologic and psychiatric diseases through qualitative and quantitative testing in an attempt to adapt their findings to clinical settings.

DARPA’s timeline for SUBNETS culminates in five years with the pursuit of Food and Drug Administration approval. Pending that approval, SUBNETS’ findings could have tremendous implications — first for the veterans for whom DARPA is funding the research, but also for the general public suffering from mental illness.

“The neurotechnologies we will work to develop under SUBNETS could give new tools to the medical community to treat patients who don’t respond to other therapies, and new knowledge to the neuroscience community to expand the understanding of brain function,” Sandchez said. “We believe this will be a foundational program.”

Still, that doesn’t address the unease, and perhaps fear, the general public will likely display at the invention of a device essentially connected to someone’s brain. When DARPA announced the SUBNETS program in October 2013, it made clear that it would do its best to be ethical and thoughtful in pushing the leading edge of technology. To support that commitment, the agency created a Ethical, Legal and Social Implications panel to guide the program, and said it will work closely with the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues’s oversight as part of the White House’s Brain Initiative.

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