The United States military plans to treat and monitor psychiatric disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with high-tech devices implanted into patients’ brains. The five-year, $70 million program was launched by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The program aims to help military personnel suffering from psychiatric disorders such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
“We’ve seen far too many times where military personnel have neuropsychiatric disorders and there’s very few options,” Justin Sanchez, a program manager at DARPA, told NPR. In 2013, DARPA announced it would take advantage of President Obama’s initiative to explore the human brain. The program’s funding will develop the electronic devices in order to monitor and electrically stimulate specific brain circuits.
Simple versions of the future brain implants are already being used to help patients with Parkinson’s according to Sanchez. The team, led by researcher at the University of California San Francisco in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital, plan to begin with volunteers who already have probes in their brains because of Parkinson’s or epilepsy. The UCSF team expects to receive $26 million to fund their research and MGH researchers are expected to get $30 million to fund their part of the project. Researchers say that because many epileptic patients and people with Parkinson’s Disease also suffer from the psychiatric disorders they are hoping to treat, these patients will help them understand how specific brain circuitry works in these disorders in real time.
The researchers who hope to treat military personnel with PTSD know that when certain circuits are stimulated, the brain changes in response. This change is called plasticity. The researchers believe that if they use the brain implants to stimulate the circuits of the brain in the right way and to the correct cells, they may be able to heal military personnel of their PTSD, depression, and anxiety. According to Huffington Post, DARPA explained:
“The science has, to this point, been largely based on a century of identifying associations between features of complex behaviors and diffuse understanding of the brain. [This project] seeks to move beyond this limited understanding to create new interventions based on new insights that can be gained from the intersection of neuroscience, neurotechnology and clinical therapy.”
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations (Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom) are believed to suffer from PTSD and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans are believed to have suffered from or are still being treated for symptoms of PTSD. DARPA hopes that the research involving the brain implants will significantly improve our understanding of mental disorders like anxiety and PTSD.
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