(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.