The ‘Pentagon’s brain’ is working on making the human brain even better

The ‘Pentagon’s brain’ is working on making the human brain even better

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DARPA's newest initiatives include efforts to boost the brain's ability to think and communicate (DARPA illustration)

WASHINGTON — DARPA has a well-honed reputation for creating innovative breakthroughs in weapons, tools and hands-on devices to help the military be more efficient, safe and resolute.

Now it is turning attention to the brains that power the military — empowering individuals to improve and expand brainpower inside and outside the body.

In one program, DARPA is focusing on restoring normal memory functions to those with brain injuries. A second program is designed to find an elusive breakthrough to give an individual’s brain the means to communicate with a device.

The broader area of research is called neurotechnology.

Funding for the two projects was not available but last summer the agency received $65 million for its Neural Engineering System Design program, which includes such initiatives.

DARPA stands for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. It is often dubbed “the Pentagon’s brain.”

The inside-the-brain efforts were launched four years ago and now they are showing results, DARPA said in a news release.

Called the Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, the goal is to develop a device that can be implanted in the brain to restore normal memory functions that were impaired by brain injury or illness, DARPA said in the release.

“Just over four years later, the program is returning remarkable results,” DARPA said in the release. The agency said recent tests resulted in some volunteers showing up to 37 percent improvement in the short term, working memory over initial measurements.

The best results came in improvement in what is called “episodic memory,” which is memory needed only once or twice — such as what to put on a grocery list, where a car is parked or recalling if a task was completed, DARPA said.

“Episodic memory loss is the most common type of memory loss in people with brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease,” DARPA said in the release.

“DARPA’s cumulative investments in neurotechnology over the past two decades have brought us to an extremely exciting point today where we’re testing tangible technologies that have the potential to alleviate some of the worst effects of brain injury and illness,” Justin Sanchez, the director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office and the program manager for RAM, said in the DARPA news release.

Last fall DARPA reported that early research and experiments in the RAM program with “non-invasive transcranial direct current stimulation” increased the speed of learning for macaques monkeys by 40 percent.

The RAM project is part of a wider effort by the scientific community to help those with brain injuries achieve improved quality of life. DARPA has been a leader in that work in such areas of assisting damaged brains in operating prosthetics, for example.

However, DARPA’s new effort is aimed at those without brain injuries and would not require surgery — a major leap in innovation. The second program’s name is Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology or N3, and has been authorized for four years.

“Such a noninvasive system would extend the power of advanced neurotechnology to able-bodied individuals and could support future Department of Defense efforts to improve human-machine teaming,” DARPA said in a news release.

DARPA said the largest roadblock is the complex physics of how communication and recognition and awareness signals scatter and weaken as they dash through the various layers of functions.

“If early program deliverables overcome the physics challenges, along with the barriers of crosstalk and low signal-to-noise ratio, subsequent program goals would include developing algorithms for decoding and encoding neural signals, integrating sensing and stimulation subcomponents into a single device, evaluating the safety and efficacy of the system in animal models, and ultimately testing the technology with human volunteers,” DARPA said in its release.

DARPA’s initial goal is to overcome the physics challenges and be able to clearly demonstrate useful for the military. Such defense-relevant tasks would include “human-machine interactions with unmanned aerial vehicles, active cyber defense systems, or other properly instrumented Department of Defense systems,” the DARPA release said. If successful, the technology could be applied to other areas of human-machine interaction, such as partnering humans with computer systems to keep pace with the anticipated speed and complexity of future military missions — a key concern of the Pentagon.

“Smart systems will significantly impact how our troops operate in the future, and now is the time to be thinking about what human-machine teaming will actually look like and how it might be accomplished,” Al Emondi, program manager in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said in the news release. “If we put the best scientists on this problem, we will disrupt current neural interface approaches and open the door to practical, high-performance interfaces.”

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