DARPA has announced that it is planning to develop tiny implantable nerve stimulation devices that would monitor, diagnose and treat the nervous system, offering personalised treatment for a number of nerve-related conditions that are common among current and ex service personnel.
The technology would in effect be a feedback-controlled treatment system, restoring the nervous system to a healthy state and thus avoiding the development of associated mental health conditions and chronic inflammatory diseases.
The US agency has formed the Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx) program to develop the technology, and is seeking proposals for what it describes as “groundbreaking neuromodulation capabilities” to make it possible.
DARPA is hoping to make the technology a first-line treatment solution for changes to the peripheral nervous system and spinal cord nerves for military service members and veterans, offering treatment that is uniquely tailored to each individual.
“Many chronic illnesses occur when the body’s natural neuroelectrical and biochemical rhythms are disrupted, like playing wrong notes in music,” said Doug Weber, DARPA program manager.
“ElectRx seeks to understand what the ‘right notes’ are for each person and provide real-time treatment to help the patient achieve and enjoy a harmonious, healthy baseline.”
At present, basic versions of the technology – known as neuromodulation devices – do exist, but they are far from ideal, and are often only used as a last resort when other treatments have failed.
Although these devices do target the nerves, they are very imprecise, resulting in a range of side-effects, and are around the size of a pack of cards, making implanting them a very invasive process.
DARPA plans to scale down this technology to the extent that it can be implanted in a similar way to an injection, while greatly increasing its capabilities so that it is entirely accurate and can work of its own accord – sensing changes and stimulating the nerves as appropriate.
In particular DARPA wants to further existing sensing and stimulation technologies to target the nerves in control of specific organ functions, keeping organs functioning healthily and avoiding a variety of diseases.
Such an achievement would be utterly groundbreaking, offering a therapy that would remove the need for a heavy drug-based treatment regime, and would likely have wide-reaching impacts on the wider field of medicine.
In order to achieve its goals, the agency is looking to both further the biological understanding of the nervous system and advance relevant technology.
DARPA is also asking companies that submit proposals to focus on a specific disease to research and treat, either within the realm of inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, or mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Images courtesy of DARPA.