Picture this: In the near future, 10 per cent of US veterans could be walking around with chips implanted in their brains. These aren’t intended for some I, Robot-style takeover, but rather to treat conditions like PTSD and substance abuse. Sound crazy? DARPA only deals in crazy.
The Pentagon’s prodigal R&D lab just announced a $US70 million project “to develop and apply therapies that incorporate near real-time recording, analysis and stimulation in next-generation devices inspired by current Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).” That’s DARPA-speak for a brain chip, an implantable device that will help the military get a handle on its widespread mental health problem. The agency’s Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) also seeks a better understanding of how these mental illnesses manifest themselves in the brain, and how neuropsychiatry might provide more treatment options. The program is part of the White House’s recently-announced BRAIN initiative from which DARPA received $US50 million.
Deep brain stimulation is not a new thing. Currently, about 100,000 people worldwide have DBS implants designed to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and dystonia. The technology is also being tested as a possible treatment for patients with spinal cord injuries as well as other conditions like chronic pain and severe depression. Existing devices use a battery-powered neurostimulator to target specific areas of the brain with mild electrical stimuli. Think of the chips as a sort of pacemaker for the brain. It’s pretty effective, but as Motherboard’s Meghan Neal points out, doctors don’t entirely understand how the existing devices work, and they can’t collect data on their efficacy. (Pro tip: It’s probably not a bad idea to know how technology works before implanting it in someone’s brain.)
Who knows what DARPA will come up with. Bear in mind that this is the same agency currently building a fully functioning humanoid robot that can walk on rocks, along with an exoskeleton for soldiers to wear on the battlefield. They also more or less invented the internet. So when you cast your sceptical eye on this new brain chip project, remember that these guys only take moonshots. And they often make them. [DARPA via Motherboard]