New Obama plan calls for implanted computer chips to help U.S. troops heal


An artist’s rendering explains the ElectRX program in development with the help of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Courtesy DARPA)

When President Obama on Tuesday highlighted 19 executive actions he says he is taking to improve the mental health of U.S. troops and veterans, one of them centered on a particularly novel effort: The development of new computer chips designed to modulate the nervous system to help with everything from arthritis to post-traumatic stress.

The project is headed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon agency that develops a variety of high-tech equipment for the U.S. military. It’s known as the Electrical Prescriptions program, or ElectRx (pronounced “electrics”). Program officials say the goal is to develop a technology that could help people heal more quickly through the use of biosensors and electromagnetic devices that control human organs.

“Instead of relying only on medication, we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker,” said Doug Weber, the program’s manager. “It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”

Obama did not reference the new program directly in his speech Tuesday at the American Legion national convention in Charlotte, N.C.  In a joint fact sheet released by the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs, however, the agencies said DARPA will start a new $78.9 million, five-year research program “to develop new, minimally invasive neurotechnologies that will increase the ability of the body and brain to induce healing.” It’s part of the Obama administration’s larger “BRAIN Initiative,” which involves the National Institutes of Health, DARPA, the National Science Foundation and the Food and Drug Administration, among other organizations.

Officials say the BRAIN Initiative — which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — includes a related DARPA effort to build new brain chips that will be able to predict moods to help treat post-traumatic stress. It’s known as the SUBNETS program, short for Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies. Teams at both the University of California, San Francisco, and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are involved.

The major hurdle for the ElectRX program may be shrinking the technology needed so that it can be used in the body. Implantable devices already are in use to fight inflammatory diseases and other health problems, but most are about the size of a deck of cards, requiring surgical implantation that can result in side effects, DARPA officials said. They want “ultraminiaturized devices” that would could be inserted through needle injection or other less invasive means.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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Dan Lamothe · August 26