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June 2

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is launching a program to develop technologies to treat psychiatric disorders by electrically stimulating the brain.

DARPA’s SUBNETS program (short for Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies) will fund teams of researchers to develop brain interfaces, computational models of brain activity and clinical therapies for such illnesses as depression, chronic pain, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The project is part of the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a collaborative effort between government agencies and industry to revolutionize understanding of the human brain.

“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,” Justin Sanchez, the DARPA program manager for SUBNETS, said in a statement.

In health and disease, brain activity is not confined to distinct parts of the brain, but rather is distributed over different neural systems. The brain is also very plastic: It can adapt its anatomy and physiology over time. The SUBNETS program will take advantage of these characteristics to develop treatments, inspired by deep-brain stimulation, that aim to restore normal brain function in people with neural illnesses, program officials said.

“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,” Sanchez said.

The program will fund two research teams, one at the University of California at San Francisco and the other at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The San Francisco team aims to develop an implanted device that targets brain regions involved in an individual’s psychiatric or neurological disease. The device would record signals from and stimulate neurons to rehabilitate the malfunctioning brain circuitry. If the approach is successful, the device might be removed after treatment, DARPA officials said.

The Boston team will work to identify common components of neurological and psychiatric illnesses, such as increased anxiety, impaired memory or inappropriate reactions to things in the environment. The team will use behavioral testing as well as detailed recordings of individual neurons to discover these common features. The researchers will then work with Draper Laboratories of Cambridge, Mass., to develop an implantable brain device that would be effective throughout a person’s life.

DARPA hopes these studies will lead to more-accurate diagnoses and more-
targeted treatments of psychiatric disorders.

— Live Science

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