Brain Implants Could Treat Mental Illness


By implanting electrodes in the brains of macaque monkeys, researchers have been able to train them to move robotic limbs and computer cursors with only their minds. Jose Carmena, a professor at the University of California in Berkeley, has been doing this work for years now. The electrodes monitor the monkeys’ neural activity. He now has some new work he would like to try. By using brain implants, Carmena believes that mentally ill individuals can be helped. With the support of a $70 million U.S. Military-funded program, the researcher will get his opportunity to try out the theory.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and Massachusetts General Hospital two hefty contracts this week. The project goal is to develop electrical implants that are able to treat seven different conditions. These include depression, addiction and borderline personality disorder.

This project is building on the ever-expanding body of knowledge regarding the workings of the brain. With the creation of systems that are microelectric and capable of fitting into a body, the idea is that actions and thoughts can be changed using well-executed impulses of electricity in the brain. Carmena, part of the project led by UCSF, explains that in an alcoholic, when they have a craving, the feeling could be detected and stopped with the proper brain stimulation.

A major application for this technology would be for use on veterans. There is currently a mental illness epidemic occurring in the U.S. military. The suicide rates are three to four times greater than the rates for civilians. Talk therapy and pharmaceuticals are limited in their scope. Justin Sanchez, the manager of a DARPA program called Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies, said the military is now looking at neurological devices for help with their growing problem.

Sanchez said that they would like to first have a better understanding of just how brains network in cases of neuropsychiatric illness. Then, the military wants to develop the technologies required to measure the networks. The goal is to be able to perform precision signaling in the brain of a patient. Sanchez went on to say that this is new and different and the devices required do not even exist yet.

These contracts are in part support for the President’s BRAIN Initiative, a mapping program that the White House launched last year. Massachusetts General Hospital has been awarded $30 million and UCSF is receiving $26 million. The companies that will be supplying the technology are Medtronic and Cortera Neurotechnologies. The early research will be done on animals. DARPA, however, is hopeful that their efforts will extend to human test subjects in two to three years.

This type of research will be met with some opposition. With good reason, the overtones could be construed as ominous. A neuroscientist named Jose Delgado, from Yale University, was implanting subjects with a device he called a stimoceiver back in the 70s. He claimed he was able to cause subjects to feel certain emotions. His funds came from the military. When Congressional hearings were held, he was accused of the development of devices that allowed for totalitarian mind control. Afterward, Delgado left the country. In order to avoid such scandals, an ethics panel has been put in place, which will oversee all research.

The implications of developing a brain implant that could truly treat those with mental illnesses who are otherwise not able to be helped are staggering. The side effects of drugs have begun to outweigh any help they might provide and talk therapy really only works for a small percentage of any population. The brain is a more exact science, though mysteries still abound.

By Stacy Lamy

Technology Review
Cortera Neurotech
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