The Pentagon’s new ElectRx program could allow human beings to heal their own wounds and illnesses, just like Wolverine and other superheroes. The program, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agnecy (DARPA), aims to create tiny electrical devices that, when implanted in a human body, will monitor organ function — and stimulate the nervous system to speed the healing process when something goes wrong.
Though they sound like something out of science fiction or comic books, the ElectRx (pronounced “electrix”) devices are actually part of President Barack Obama’s BRAIN initiative. Announced in April of 2013, the $100 million BRAIN program aims to improve understanding of the human brain and nervous system.
The results of the research will help improve the ways that human beings “think, learn and remember,” according to a White House summary of the BRAIN initiative.
“ElectRx aims to develop new, high-precision, minimally invasive technologies for modulating nerve circuits to restore and maintain human health,” DARPA said in a press release. “ElectRx technologies are also expected to help accelerate scientific research aimed at achieving a more complete understanding of the structure and function of specific neural circuits and their role in health and disease.”
DARPA, an agency created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958, has been responsible for dozens of technological innovations in its nearly 60 years of existence. But among the general public, DARPA — formerly known as ARPA — is best known for creating ARPANET, the earliest version of the large-scale computer network that later became known as the internet.
Among the diseases that could benefit most from the tiny ElectRx implant technology are epilepsy, traumatic brain injuries, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Earlier this year, DARPA announced that it was testing miniaturized brain implants to help treat PTSD.
But the ElectRx devices could be used to treat practically anything and even eventually replace drugs as the primary method for treating disease and injury
“Instead of relying only on medication, we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker,” said DARPA Program Manager Doug Weber. “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.”
In other words, the tiny, unobtrusive ElectRx implants would function as computers, constantly checking the body for malfunctions — and fixing them when they crop up.
Medical implant technology already exists, but most such implants are large and unwieldy, and can only be implanted through surgery.
ElectRx devices will be so small that a patient would not need even feel them, and they would be implanted by a simple injection.