Wednesday, May 28, 2014

CNEP Wins $26M from DARPA for Neural Implants

UCSF neurosurgeon Edward
Chang developing read/write
neural implants to treat neuro-
psychiatric illness. (Photo by
Eric Millette) 
NPR's Morning Edition yesterday featured a good story about the work of Eddie Chang, the brilliant neurosurgeon/scientist at UCSF, and his cohorts at CNEP. These guys--whom I've written about  for Discover, San Francisco Magazine, and Berkeley Engineer--are on fire. The NPR piece reported on CNEP's part of a five-year $70-million DARPA project using brain implants to identify, study, and reform errant neural circuitry behind depression, PTSD, and addiction. The UCSF/Berkeley CNEP team is getting about $26 million of the funding to work on both the implants and the algorithms needed to 1) read and make sense of the brain's activity and 2) know when and how to apply subtle electrical impulses to lead the brain to "unlearn dysfunction" in areas causing psychiatric symptoms. It would be an entirely new way of treating mental  illness...unless you count electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which also used electrical stimulation to interrupt pathological symptoms. Let's hope the new approach is a little more nuanced in its application and effects. Whether the implant approach will even work at all is unclear, but in just trying to find out the CNEP group will surely make huge strides toward directly linking brains and computers. 

I don't question DARPA's interest in helping millions of vets and others to overcome disabling and agonizing mental illness, but nor do I doubt the military research organization's incentive to develop brain-machine interfaces for a host of other purposes, too. More to come on this soon. 

Listen to NPR's Morning Edition story, Military Plans to Test Brain Implants to Fight Mental Disorders, by Jon Hamilton. Here's a link to DARPA's announcement. And a UC Berkeley release about the project.



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