Worldwide, 100,000 people have electrical implants in their brains to treat the involuntary movements associated with Parkinson’s disease, and scientists are experimenting with the technique for depression and other disorders.
But today’s so-called deep brain stimulation does not monitor its own effectiveness, partly because complex ailments like depression do not have defined biological signatures.
The federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, announced Thursday that it intended to spend more than $70 million over five years to jump to the next level of brain implants, either by improving deep brain stimulation or by developing new technology.
Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager, said that for scientists now, the goal is improving the technology.
“There is no technology that can acquire signals that can tell them precisely what is going on with the brain,” he said. “DARPA is trying to change the game on how we approach these kinds of problems.”
The new program, called Systems-Based Neurotechnology and Understanding for the Treatment of Neuropsychological Illnesses, is part of an Obama administration brain initiative that is intended to promote innovative basic neuroscience. Participants in the initiative include DARPA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.
The announcement of DARPA’s goal is the first indication of how that research agency will participate in the initiative. The money is expected to be divided among several teams, and research proposals are now being sought.
‘We’re going to learn a tremendous amount about how the brain works.’
DARPA’s project is partly inspired by the needs of combat veterans who suffer from mental and physical conditions, and is the first to directly invest in researching human illness as part of the brain initiative.
The National Institutes of Health, which has not decided on its emphasis, appears to be aiming for basic research, based on the recommendations from a working committee advising the agency.
Dr. Helen Mayberg, a neuroscientist at Emory University School of Medicine who has pioneered work on deep brain stimulation and depression, praised the new program.
“DARPA’s initiative says in no uncertain terms that we want to concentrate on human beings,” she said, adding that she was particularly pleased with the emphasis on deep brain stimulation.
“This adds to a growing recognition that this approach to brain disease is a promising strategy,” she said.
Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University, one of the leaders of the health institutes committee dealing with the direction of that agency’s work under the brain initiative, also applauded the direction of the DARPA research.
“It plays to their strength in brain recordings and devices, and it addresses psychiatric issues that are major concerns for the military,” she said.
DARPA’s goal would require solving several long-standing problems in neuroscience, one of which is to develop a detailed model of how injuries or illnesses like depression manifest themselves in the brain.
The next step is to create a device that can monitor the signs of illness or injury, treat them appropriately, and measure the effects of the treatment. The result would be like a highly sophisticated pacemaker for a brain disorder.
DARPA is asking for teams to produce a device ready to be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval within five years.
“Is it overambitious? Of course,” said Mayberg, adding that working with the brain was “a slow process.” But she said that it was an impressive first investment and that the clear emphasis on human illness was “stunning.”
Whether or not the goal is fully achieved, Sanchez said, the endeavor was worthwhile.
“We’re going to learn a tremendous amount about how the brain works,” he said. “And we’re going to be developing new medical devices.”
The testing of any such devices would involve both animals and human subjects, and Sanchez said DARPA had set up an ethics panel for the program and other DARPA neuroscience work. A presidential bioethics commission also oversees all aspects of the brain initiative.
The Obama administration is budgeting $100 million for the first year of the brain initiative. A committee of the health institutes produced a draft report in September that indicated that the agency would concentrate its $40 million share on systems or networks in the brain, not individual cells and not the whole brain.
DARPA is allocated $50 million this year under President Barack Obama’s brain initiative. The agency would not specify precisely how much it would spend in the first year, and all the numbers depend on the final federal budget.