The Pentagon's research arm wants to trick out troops' brains, from the areas that regulate alertness and cognition to psychiatric well-being. And they want to do it all from the outside in, with a gadget installed inside the troops' helmets.
"Remote Control of Brain Activity Using Ultrasound," the Defense Department's Armed with Science blog promises.
It's the latest out-there project in the military's growing arsenal of brain-based research. In recent months alone, the Pentagon's funded projects to optimize troop's minds, prevent injuries and even preemptively assess cognitive ability and vulnerability to traumatic stress. Now, Darpa's funding one lab that's trying to do it all – from boosting troop smarts to preventing traumatic brain injuries.
Arizona State University neuroscientist William Tyler has been working with funding from the Army Research Laboratory for years. That neurotechnology work has now caught the eye of Darpa, which awarded his lab a Young Faculty Award to improve upon non-invasive approaches to brain stimulation.
"When people ask what this kind of device could do, I ask them what their brain does for them," Tyler tells Danger Room. "The brain serves all the functions of your body, and if you knew the neuroanatomy, then you can start to regulate each one of those functions."
Already, scientists have devised cutting-edge brain stimulation methods to treat medical disorders, like Parkinson's disease or severe depression. But current deep-brain approaches require invasive surgery to implant electrodes and batteries, and external ultrasound stimulation can't penetrate "the deep brain circuits where many diseased circuits reside," Tyler writes at Armed With Science.
Now, Tyler and his research team have created a "transcranial pulsed ultrasound" that's able to stimulate a myriad of brain circuits from the outside in. The device has already proven capable of targeting deep brain regions, unlike existing methods. And it's capable of zeroing in on extremely specific brain zones, as small as two or three millimeters. Plus, prototype devices are small enough to be fitted inside a typical helmet.
"Going deep beneath the skull and having extremely specific spatial resolution are two huge advantages over existing approaches," Tyler says. "Depth and specificity are what allow the ultrasound to do what other methods can't."
With Darpa's funding, Tyler plans to expand the uses of the ultrasound and improve the device's spacial resolution even more, making it a veritable all-in-one brain stimulation device. Using a microcontroller device, the ultrasound would stimulate different brain regions to boost troop alertness and cognition, relieve stress and pain, and protect them against traumatic brain injuries.
"The really damaging part of a TBI isn't the initial injury," Tyler says. "It's the metabolic damage, the free radicals and the swelling that are happening in the hours afterward. If you can flick your remote and trigger an immediate intervention, you'd be curbing what might otherwise be lifelong brain damage."