The Brave New World of Brain Implants



IN CASE YOU MISSED the DHARMA Initiative on the TV show “Lost,” a new research initiative exploring brain implants to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD and even OCD appears eerily similar, funded by the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program SUBNETS (Systems-Based Neurotechnolgy for Emerging Therapies).

The DARPA research originally focused on creating super soldiers via technology that could monitor and alter brain activity, for example, to improve memory and focus or extend alert waking hours.  Along the way, researchers began working to develop nerve-fiber implants for treating psychiatric problems, as well as addiction and fibromyalgia, especially among those who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.  (According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness and suicide rates among the U.S. military have “spiked” over the past decade.)

“Imagine if I have a craving [for alcohol],” UC Berkeley researcher Jose Carmena told MIT Technology Review.  An implant “could detect that feeling and then stimulate from inside the brain to stop it.”

“Brain implant” also refers to existing technology, including the cochlear implant–now used by more than 300,000 people worldwide–and a retinal chip, approved last year, to help with some eye impairments, as well as Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) used to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and epilepsy.  DBS uses electrodes that are implanted in the brain and manually adjusted by clinicians on a regular basis to alter pathological signals such as those causing the tremors and slowed movements of Parkinson’s Disease.  The same electrodes are now being tested to read and record those abnormal signals, with the hope of mapping the pathways of depression and anxiety that often accompany the disease.

In 2005, Helen Mayberg, neurologist at Emory University, reported using DBS to alleviate severe, treatment-resistant depression eased symptoms in 40 to 60 percent of about 150 cases.  But a new device approved for researchers in 2013 that has revolutionized the field will, Mayberg told Nature magazine, “enable progress exponentially.”

Data on the brain’s abnormal activity patterns is necessary to determine where and what to stimulate for treatment.  At the same time, technology is being developed with the goal of miniaturizing devices that can be attached to specific nerve fibers.  (The nervous system is “incorporative,” meaning it doesn’t reject implants.)  When the brain is stimulated appropriately,  malfunctioning circuits can be interrupted, and the brain, because of its plasticity, can be healed.

Besides using brain implants to enhance mental focus and perception, a memory chip wired directly into the brain’s hippocampus could provide perfect recall of everything you read.  And “neurocompilers” could install hours of automated mental practice inside the heads of soldiers or others, for example, golfers, to improve their swing.

The ultimate goal of DARPA’s ElectRx program is a tiny device that uses electrical impulses to both diagnose and treat inflammatory conditions throughout the body including arthritis.  Although a stretch, the device has inspired comparisons to Wolverine and the Incredible Hulk–superheroes who have the ability to heal themselves.

–Mary Carpenter





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