(Bloomberg) — The Pentagon is exploring the development of implantable probes that may one day help reverse some memory loss caused by brain injury.
The goal of the project, still in early stages, is to treat some of the more than 280,000 troops who have suffered brain injuries since 2000, including in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is focused on wounded veterans, although some research may benefit others such as seniors with dementia or athletes with brain injuries, said Geoff Ling, a physician and deputy director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences office.
It’s still far from certain that such work will result in an anti-memory-loss device. Still, word of the project is creating excitement after more than a decade of failed attempts to develop drugs to treat brain injury and memory loss.
“The way human memory works is one of the great unsolved mysteries,” said Andres Lozano, chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto. “This has tremendous value from a basic science aspect. It may have huge implications for patients with disorders affecting memory, including those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”
At least 1.7 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with memory loss each year, costing the nation’s economy more than $76 billion annually, according to the most recent federal health data. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates it will spend $4.2 billion to care for former troops with brain injuries between fiscal 2013 and 2022.
Medtronic Inc. already sells implants used in deep brain stimulation treatment to reduce some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions. Now, DARPA officials hope to build on neuroengineering advances, such as one that helped people with limited motor functions communicate with a device, according to agency documents posted online.
The Pentagon has sought research proposals from companies and organizations, asking for ideas on stimulating brain tissue to help restore memory. If the research pans out, it may attract interest from companies including General Electric Co. and International Business Machines Corp. as well as Medtronic, said Art Caplan, medical ethics director at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and an occasional DARPA adviser.
Federal health regulators have already authorized Medtronic’s implant for sale in the U.S. St. Jude Medical Inc. and Boston Scientific Corp. sell similar devices overseas and are seeking U.S. approval.
The memory project is part of President Barack Obama’s BRAIN initiative, which funds research that seeks to find treatments for some of the most common brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and brain injury.
DARPA is seeking to develop a portable, wireless device that “must incorporate implantable probes” to record and stimulate brain activity, according to documents posted online. Those submitting proposals were instructed to specify the number, size, spacing, weight and power requirements of the probes in their proposals, as well as what areas of the brain would be targeted and the surgical procedures used to implant the devices.
The existing Medtronic product to treat Parkinson’s uses a surgically implanted device consisting of thin wires that carry a signal to electrodes that “deliver stimulation to the brain.” Some of the wires are implanted inside the brain, while the rest are placed under the scalp. The electrical impulses are powered by a product located under the skin in the upper chest area, according to the company’s website.
The DARPA initiative isn’t designed to recover the type of memories used to recall a person’s name. Instead, it would help wounded warriors recover “task-based motor skills” necessary for “life or livelihood,” Ling said.
DARPA has a history of supporting programs that have led to commercial success.
DARPA’s work contributed to the creation of the Internet and stealth fighter jets. Its long-shot, far-out projects now under development include “geckskin,” part of a program designed to help soldiers climb walls like lizards, and robotic pack mules capable of carrying gear.
–With assistance from Robert Langreth in New York. Editors: Stephanie Stoughton, Rick Schine
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