Might brain implants help restore memory loss from combat injuries?

February 10, 2014

The Pentagon is exploring the development of implantable probes that may one day help reverse some memory loss caused by brain injury. The goal of the project, still in its early stages, is to treat some of the more than 280,000 troops who have suffered brain injuries since 2000, including in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is focused on wounded veterans, although some research may benefit others such as seniors with dementia or athletes with brain injuries, said Geoff Ling, a physician and deputy director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences office.

It’s still far from certain that such work will result in a device. Still, word of the project is creating excitement after more than a decade of failed attempts to develop drugs to treat brain injury and memory loss.

“The way human memory works is one of the great unsolved mysteries,” said Andres Lozano, chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto. “This has tremendous value from a basic science aspect. It may have huge implications for patients with disorders affecting memory, including those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

At least 1.7 million people in the United States are found to have memory loss each year, costing the nation’s economy more than $76 billion annually, according to the most recent federal health data. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates it will spend $4.2 billion to care for former troops with brain injuries between fiscal 2013 and 2022.

Medtronic already sells implants used in deep brain stimulation treatment to reduce some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions.

DARPA officials hope to build on neuroengineering advances, such as one that helps people with limited motor functions communicate with a device, according to agency documents posted online.

The memory project is part of President Obama’s BRAIN initiative, which funds research into treatments for common brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and brain injury.

DARPA’s envisioned brain probe may one day help such people as Thomas Green III, who said he was driving a five-ton truck in Iraq in 2004 when it hit a roadside bomb, then flipped 10 times. Green survived with a crushed pelvis, a fractured back and a brain injury.

After the explosion, the 31-year-old U.S. Army sergeant said he couldn’t recall how to put on a shirt or brush his teeth. While dating the woman who is now his wife, he sometimes forgot to pick her up and didn’t always remember her name.

The DARPA initiative isn’t designed to recover the type of memories used to recall a person’s name. Instead, it would help wounded warriors recover “task-based motor skills” necessary for “life or livelihood,” Ling said. For example, the brain implant might enable people to recall how to drive cars, tie their shoes and perhaps eventually operate machinery or fly planes, he said.

The elite Pentagon research office behind the memory project has a history of supporting programs that have led to commercial success. DARPA’s work contributed to the creation of the Internet and stealth fighter jets. Its long-shot, far-out projects now under development include “geckskin,” part of a program designed to help soldiers climb walls like lizards, and robotic pack mules capable of carrying gear.

Another DARPA program may lead to bodysuits designed to make soldiers stronger and less prone to injuries or fatigue. The suit may also be used in rehabilitative medicine, according to agency documents.

Bloomberg News

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