May 30, 2014

DARPA funds $70 million for brain implants for emotional mind control

The positive spin is DARPA is spending $70 million for a program that will try to develop brain implants able to regulate emotions in the mentally ill and the negative spin is US military researchers are developing brain implants for mind control.

The U.S. military has a goal to use brain implants to read, and then control, the emotions of mentally ill people.

Negative spin - The US military has turned recruits into crazy killing machines and now they want to use brain implants to make them safer when the veterans are integrated back into society. Alternatively they can use the brain implants to make the human killing machines even more immune to fear or other emotions.

Positive spin and perspective - We can already remove the human element from weapons (bombs, precision missiles etc...) so killing without emotion has been easy. So it is good that any mentally ill, addicts and other people get more effective control than drugs can currently provide to blunt their bad tendencies. We can also help people with emotional control issues or problems with self control get more emotional control. This could help solve big societal problems (too much drinking, obesity, etc...) and people could become more productive and happy.

Negative examples from Fiction

Mean "Mean Machine" Angel is a villain in the Judge Dredd stories of the British comic book series 2000 AD.

Mean Machine's dial settings are:
1. Surly
2. Mean
3. Vicious
4. Brutal
And 4.5 is out of control

There is also the cyborg character Deathlok from Marvel Comics.

This week the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, awarded two large contracts to Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of California, San Francisco, to create electrical brain implants capable of treating seven psychiatric conditions, including addiction, depression, and borderline personality disorder.

The project builds on expanding knowledge about how the brain works; the development of microlectronic systems that can fit in the body; and substantial evidence that thoughts and actions can be altered with well-placed electrical impulses to the brain.

“Imagine if I have an addiction to alcohol and I have a craving,” says Carmena, who is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and involved in the UCSF-led project. “We could detect that feeling and then stimulate inside the brain to stop it from happening.”

The U.S. faces an epidemic of mental illness among veterans, including suicide rates three or four times that of the general public. But drugs and talk therapy are of limited use, which is why the military is turning to neurological devices, says Justin Sanchez, manager of the DARPA program, known as Subnets, for Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies.

“We want to understand the brain networks [in] neuropsychiatric illness, develop technology to measure them, and then do precision signaling to the brain,” says Sanchez. “It’s something completely different and new. These devices don’t yet exist.”

Under the contracts, which are the largest awards so far supporting President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, the brain-mapping program launched by the White House last year, UCSF will receive as much as $26 million and Mass General up to $30 million. Companies including the medical device giant Medtronic and startup Cortera Neurotechnologies, a spin-out from UC Berkeley’s wireless laboratory, will supply technology for the effort. Initial research will be in animals, but DARPA hopes to reach human tests within two or three years.

The research builds on a small but quickly growing market for devices that work by stimulating nerves, both inside the brain and outside it. More than 110,000 Parkinson’s patients have received deep-brain stimulators built by Medtronic that control body tremors by sending electric pulses into the brain. More recently, doctors have used such stimulators to treat severe cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder (see “Brain Implants Can Reset Misfiring Circuits”). Last November, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved NeuroPace, the first implant that both records from the brain and stimulates it (see “Zapping Seizures Away”). It is used to watch for epileptic seizures and then stop them with electrical pulses. Altogether, U.S. doctors bill for about $2.6 billion worth of neural stimulation devices a year, according to industry estimates.

Researchers say they are making rapid improvements in electronics, including small, implantable computers. Under its program, Mass General will work with Draper Laboratories in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop new types of stimulators. The UCSF team is being supported by microelectronics and wireless researchers at UC Berkeley, who have created several prototypes of miniaturized brain implants. Michel Maharbiz, a professor in Berkeley’s electrical engineering department, says the Obama brain initiative, and now the DARPA money, has created a “feeding frenzy” around new technology. “It’s a great time to do tech for the brain,” he says.

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