Neuroscientists, engineers, and physicians are teaming up for a five-year, $26 million project to develop new techniques for tackling mental illness by building implantable brain-interfacing devices to target and correct malfunctioning neural circuits related to conditions such as clinical depression, addiction, and anxiety disorders.
The project, which stems from the White House’s BRAIN Initiative, was announced by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of its Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program.
New York University neuroscientist Bijan Pesaran is among the scientists on the research team.
“The SUBNETS program is set to usher in a new generation of brain-based technologies to improve human mental health,” said Pesaran, associate professor of neural science at NYU’s Center for Neural Science. “Our contribution will help drive the development of these new technologies by better understanding how large-scale circuits in the brain communicate and how to correct malfunction in these circuits which results from neurological damage and disease. We are thrilled to have been selected for this ambitious effort.”
The heart of the project lies at the Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses (CNEP), jointly operated by the University of California, Berkeley and UC San Francisco (UCSF). The project will be funded through a cooperative agreement between DARPA and UCSF.
“By analyzing patterns of interaction among brain regions known to be involved in mental illness, we can get a more detailed look than ever before at what might be malfunctioning, and we can then develop technology to correct it,” said CNEP co-director Dr. Edward Chang, UCSF neurosurgeon and principal investigator of the project.
Brain implants emitting electrical signals have been used for more than 15 years in tens of thousands of patients to treat the motor symptoms of disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and essential tremors.
“We will use new implantable technology to record from large-scale brain networks that are relevant to neuropsychiatric disorders, and apply precise electrical stimulation to unlearn dysfunction in these networks,” said CNEP co-director Jose Carmena, UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. “This project could dramatically change the landscape of treatment options for a range of mental conditions.”
The researchers added that limited treatment options are now available for mental disorders. There are drugs that act on a specific molecular target, but since any one of these targets might be involved in multiple pathways, use of these medications can lead to unwanted side effects. Another option is psychotherapy, which is expensive with mixed rates of success. A subset of patients cannot find meaningful relief from any existing treatments.
DARPA’s SUBNETS program supports President Barack Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative to develop new tools for treating, curing, and even preventing a range of brain disorders.
The multi-institutional project also includes researchers from Cornell University, with industry partners from Cortera Neurotechnologies and Posit Science. They will be working with scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under a separately funded cooperative agreement.
UCSF’s contract with DARPA is worth up to $26 million over five years and includes a series of required milestones.