If neuroscientists have learned anything in past decade, it’s that there’s a big difference between therapies that solve and therapies that merely mask symptoms.
That’s the impetus behind new studies to determine if the solution to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might better be achieved by “re-directing” the brain, rather than just prescribing medications to ameliorate its effects.
In the current $70-million project funded by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), researchers are aiming to do just that — by taking brain implants for psychiatric disorders to the next level.
DARPA’s program is called the Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS). It was created in response to a pressing need: despite the continued best efforts of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to protect the health of U.S. servicemembers and veterans, the effects of neuropsychological illness brought on by war, traumatic injuries, and other experiences remain challenging to treat. Current approaches—surgery, medications, and psychotherapy—can often help to alleviate the worst effects of illnesses such as major depression and post-traumatic stress, but they are imprecise and not universally effective. Through SUBNETS, DARPA hopes to generate the knowledge and technology required to deliver relief to patients with otherwise intractable neuropsychological illness
DARPA researchers hope to build a device that can sit inside a patient’s head, recognize the onset of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and head it off at the pass. Of course, it will have to be small — or, as Draper Laboratory’s Jim Moran describes it — “We’re taking a wall of computers, basically, and putting it into something that would easily fit inside a box of Tic-Tacs.”
The wall of computers is a reference to the millions of connections and loops in the brain related to PTSD that must be understood before development of a successful implant will be possible. Scientists need to grasp how to recognize exactly which patterns of brain activity (“neural signatures”) are indicative of depression and PTSD. Such understanding would allow neuroscientists to pinpoint the activity that occurs when brain activity goes off course, as well as correct it in real-time.
Tracking this brain activity entails gargantuan amounts of data. In the end, however, any workable implant device would have to be small enough to fit inside a patient’s head — batteries and all. Hence, the “box of Tic Tacs.”
Dr. Emad Eskandar, a Massachusetts General Hospital neurosurgeon, has been working on this problem.
“Is there an actual trace, something that I can reliably say, ‘Yes, when I see this it means a person is having an attack of PTSD or they’re feeling very depressed’?” notes Eskandar. “We don’t know. So that is probably going to be the single hardest part.”
Why so difficult? Draper Laboratory’s Peter Chin, who works on software development, says one can “think of brain activity as “a hundred billion people all singing at the same time. Sometimes they’re off tune, sometimes they’re in tune, and sometimes you hear a particular harmony that may say something about this whole chorus, and that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s just an incredible challenge mathematically.”
In a word, Draper is identifying the challenge as “learning to extract signal from noise in the activity of the brain with great efficiency.”
The ultimate goal is to help the legions of people — citizens and soldiers alike — who suffer from the seemingly intractable despair associated with depression and PTSD. If successful, it would mean a big difference to millions of people, all by dint of a very small box in the brain.