The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working to develop wireless, implantable brain prostheses for service members and veterans who suffer memory loss from traumatic brain injury.
Called neuroprotheses, the implant would help declarative memory, which consciously recalls basic knowledge such as events, times and places, DARPA officials said.
To overcome such memory deficits, "these neuroprosthetics will be designed to bridge the gaps in the injured brain to help restore that memory function," said Dr. Justin Sanchez, DARPA Restoring Active Memory Program manager. "Our vision is to develop neuroprosthetics for memory recovery in patients living with brain injury and dysfunction," he said.
The neuroprosthetics developed and tested over the next four years would be as a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device for human clinical use, Sanchez explained.
Each year in the United States, traumatic brain injury affects about 270,000 service members and another 1.7 million civilians, he said.
"The traumatic brain injury is really a very devastating injury," said Dr. Geoffrey Ling, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who worked in both war zones studying TBI for former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Navy Adm. Mike Mullen.
"One of the biggest consequences of [TBI memory loss] is the ability to do normal functions," Ling said. "How is somebody going to have their livelihood if they can't remember how to do simple tasks?"
DARPA's neuroprostheses development is expected to yield "remarkable" benefits for service members and for civilians throughout the world, Ling noted. "But right now our focus here is on those injured service members."
In broad funding terms, the implant development would involve assistance from the University of Pennsylvania, which has been selected for an award of up to $22.5 million, a University of California, Los Angeles team, with an award of $15 million, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, with up to $2.5 million, Sanchez said.
The effects of traumatic brain injury are profound, Ling said.
"[TBIs] typically result in a reduced ability or capacity to form new memories or even to produce or recall memories," Ling said, adding that existing treatment options are "very few."
In addition to extending available options for injuries and treatment, Sanchez added, "ultimately, we would like to help find solutions for the emotional, social and economic aspects of those injuries."
Huge technological and scientific challenges need to be overcome to deliver such medical therapies to injured service members and veterans, he said. They include new medical hardware to interface with the brain and computational models that allow clinicians to interface with the circuits of the brain that produce memory formation and recall, he said.
While development of the implant encompasses four years, Sanchez said, one of the goals is to start phasing in some early prototype devices the first year and to collect preliminary data to help guide more complex parts later in the project.
"This is a truly remarkable period of time," Sanchez said. "To think about how we are going to learn about memory in the human brain, to think about the potential for developing those next generation medical neuroprosthetic devices that can provide new options for our injured military personnel, is truly remarkable."