DARPA has a $79.8 million ElectRx project that aims to explore neuromodulation of organ functions to help the human body heal itself.
DARPA is planning to perform human trials of ElectRx in about five years. The initial goal will be improving the quality of life for US soldiers and veterans — though there’s no word on which condition DARPA will focus on.
The body’s peripheral nervous system constantly monitors the status of internal organs and helps regulate biological responses to infection, injury or other imbalances. When this regulatory process goes awry due to injury or illness, peripheral nerve signals can actually exacerbate a condition, causing pain, inflammation or immune dysfunction. A number of difficult-to-treat conditions might be managed more effectively by precise modulation of the peripheral nervous system than by conventional medical devices or medications.
“The technology DARPA plans to develop through the ElectRx program could fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness,” said Doug Weber, DARPA program manager. “Instead of relying only on medication—we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker. It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”
Initiated in support of the President’s brain initiative, ElectRx (pronounced “electrics”) aims to develop new, high-precision, minimally invasive technologies for modulating nerve circuits to restore and maintain human health. ElectRx technologies are also expected to help accelerate scientific research aimed at achieving a more complete understanding of the structure and function of specific neural circuits and their role in health and disease. Potential targets include recently identified circuits involved in regulating immune system function, providing new hope for treating a range of inflammatory diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, systemic inflammatory response syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. ElectRx is also expected to improve peripheral nerve stimulation treatments for brain and mental health disorders, such as epilepsy, traumatic brain injury (TBI), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression
DARPA’s ElectRx program plans to develop technologies to restore and maintain healthy physiological status through monitoring and targeted regulation of signaling in peripheral nerves that control organ functions. Novel therapies based on targeted stimulation of the peripheral nervous system could promote self-healing, reduce dependence on traditional drugs and provide new treatment options for illnesses.
Achieving DARPA’s goals for the program would require new technologies for in vivo sensing and neural stimulation, including advanced biosensors and novel optical, acoustic and electromagnetic devices to achieve precise targeting of individual or small bundles of nerve fibers that control relevant organ functions.
Simple implantable devices for management of chronic inflammatory diseases and other disorders are already in clinical use, and the market for neuromodulation devices is growing rapidly. Current devices, however, are relatively large (about the size of a deck of cards), require invasive surgical implantation and often produce side effects due to their lack of precision. ElectRx seeks to create ultraminiaturized devices, approximately the same size as individual nerve fibers, which would require only minimally invasive insertion procedures such as injectable delivery through a needle.
ElectRx is part of a broader portfolio of programs within DARPA that support President Obama’s brain initiative. These programs include ongoing efforts designed to advance fundamental understanding of the brain’s dynamics to drive applications (Revolutionizing Prosthetics, Restorative Encoding Memory Integration Neural Device, Reorganization and Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery, Enabling Stress Resistance), manufacture robust sensing systems for neurotechnology applications (Reliable Neutral Interface Technology) and analyze large data sets (Detection and Computational Analysis of Psychological Signals)
Memory loss and inability to acquire new memories are common consequences of traumatic brain injury, and memory dysfunction is an expensive, long-term treatment problem for the military. Recovery from loss of memory associated with critical work and life tasks is essential to the recovery of a brain-wounded warfighter. A biomimetic model of the hippocampus could serve as a neural prosthesis for lost cognitive function and memory impairment.
The Restorative Encoding Memory Integration Neural Device (REMIND) program will determine the nature and means by which short-term memory is encoded to enable restoration of memory through use of devices programmed to bypass injured regions of the brain. Researchers will demonstrate the ability to restore performance on a short-term memory task in animal models, as well as determine quantitative descriptive methods for describing the means and processes by which memory is encoded.
When DARPA launched the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in 2006, the state of upper-limb prosthetic technology was far behind lower-limb technology. Advancing upper-limb technology was judged to be a more difficult medical and engineering challenge.
After six years of development, the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program developed two anthropomorphic advanced modular prototype prosthetic arm systems, including sockets, which offer increased range of motion, dexterity and control options.
Thirty-five volunteer amputees participated in a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) funded optimization study in VA and DoD medical centers and provided design feedback for the development of the Gen-3 Arm System by DEKA Integrated Solutions Corporation, one of two primary performers on the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. Based on that testing and subsequent refinement, DEKA submitted a 510(k) premarket notification to the FDA in April 2012 seeking approval to make the Arm System commercially available.
DARPA researchers have also attained promising initial results on achieving brain control of an advanced arm system developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, the second primary performer on Revolutionizing Prosthetics. This work with tetraplegic volunteers has demonstrated the potential to use advanced prostheses to improve the quality of life for victims of paralysis.
The Revolutionizing Prosthetics program is ongoing and aims to continue increasing functionality of the DARPA arm systems so servicemembers with arm loss may one day have the option of choosing to return to duty. Additionally, the dexterous hand capabilities developed under the program have already been applied to small robotic systems used in manipulating unexploded ordnance, thus keeping soldiers out of situations that have led to limb loss.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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