Brain implants hold promise restoring combat memory loss
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is exploring the development of implantable probes that may one day help reverse some memory loss caused by brain injury.
The goal of the project, still in early stages, is to treat some of the more than 280,000 troops who have suffered brain injuries since 2000, including in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is focused on wounded veterans, although some research may benefit others such as seniors with dementia or athletes with brain injuries, said Geoff Ling, a physician and deputy director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences office. It’s still far from certain that such work will result in an anti-memory-loss device. Still, word of the project is creating excitement after more than a decade of failed attempts to develop drugs to treat brain injury and memory loss.
"The way human memory works is one of the great unsolved mysteries," said Andres Lozano, chairman of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto. "This has tremendous value from a basic science aspect. It may have huge implications for patients with disorders affecting memory, including those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease."
At least 1.7 million people in the United States are diagnosed with memory loss each year, costing the nation’s economy more than $76 billion annually, according to the most recent federal health data. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates it will spend $4.2 billion to care for former troops with brain injuries between fiscal 2013 and 2022.
Medtronic Inc. already sells implants used in deep brain stimulation treatment to reduce some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions. Now, DARPA officials hope to build on neuroengineering advances, such as one that helped people with limited motor functions communicate with a device, according to agency documents posted online.
The Pentagon has sought research proposals from companies and organizations, asking for ideas on stimulating brain tissue to help restore memory. If the research pans out, it may attract interest from companies including General Electric and IBM Corp. as well as Medtronic, said Art Caplan, medical ethics director at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and an occasional DARPA adviser.
Federal health regulators have already authorized Medtronic’s implant for sale in the U.S. St. Jude Medical Inc., based in St. Paul, Minn., and Boston Scientific Corp., based in Natick, Mass., sell similar devices overseas and are seeking U.S. approval.
The memory project is part of President Barack Obama’s BRAIN initiative, which funds research that seeks to find treatments for some of the most common brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and brain injury.
DARPA is seeking to develop a portable, wireless device that "must incorporate implantable probes" to record and stimulate brain activity, according to documents posted online. Those submitting proposals were instructed to specify the number, size, spacing, weight and power requirements of the probes in their proposals, as well as what areas of the brain would be targeted and the surgical procedures used to implant the devices.
The existing Medtronic product to treat Parkinson’s uses a surgically implanted device consisting of thin wires that carry a signal to electrodes that "deliver stimulation to the brain." Some of the wires are implanted inside the brain, while the rest are placed under the scalp. The electrical impulses are powered by a product located under the skin in the upper chest area, according to the company’s website.
DARPA’s envisioned brain probe may one day help with some of the memory losses suffered by people like Thomas Green III, who said he was driving a five-ton truck in Iraq in 2004 when it hit a roadside bomb, then flipped 10 times. Green survived with a crushed pelvis, fractured back and a brain injury.
After the attack, the 31-year-old U.S. Army sergeant said he couldn’t recall how to put on a shirt or brush his teeth. While dating the woman who is now his wife, he sometimes forgot to pick her up and didn’t always remember her name.
Improvised explosive devices, the type of homemade bomb that Green said his truck hit, have contributed to war-time injuries, though many more have occurred among troops stationed at their bases in accidents such as vehicle crashes, falls and training injuries, according to military data.
The DARPA initiative isn’t designed to recover the type of memories used to recall a person’s name. Instead, it would help wounded warriors recover "task-based motor skills" necessary for "life or livelihood," Ling said.
The brain implant, for example, might enable people to recall how to drive cars, tie their shoes and perhaps eventually operate machinery or fly planes, he said.
The elite Pentagon research office behind the memory project has a history of supporting programs that have led to commercial success. DARPA’s work contributed to the creation of the Internet and stealth fighter jets. Its long-shot, far-out projects now under development include "geckskin," part of a program designed to help soldiers climb walls like lizards, and robotic pack mules capable of carrying gear.
"We strive to come up with projects that would ultimately be transformative," Ling said. "It you look at our portfolio, it supports that."
Another DARPA program may lead to bodysuits designed to make soldiers stronger and less prone to injuries or fatigue. The suit may also be used in rehabilitative medicine, according to agency documents.
The odds of parts of both the bodysuit and brain implant projects being used in an application are as high as 70 to 80 percent, said Mike Hopmeier, who worked as a contractor and consultant at DARPA from the mid-1990s to 2005.
"If you’re saying, well, at the end of the program will they actually turn out a brain chip, or put somebody in a warrior websuit, the probability of that is probably 10 to 15 percent," Hopmeier said.
Justin Ihle, a spokesman for Minneapolis-based Medtronic, didn’t comment on whether the medical products company is bidding on the DARPA brain project. He said it is "interested in forming partnerships with institutions, such as DARPA, that may one day lead to new treatment options and better technology."
Nadeem Ishaque, a GE Global Research official, said in an emailed statement that while the company didn’t plan to submit a proposal, it’s starting to explore implantable devices.
Green, a Fayetteville, N.C., resident who left the military in 2005, said he has developed ways to live with his memory loss.
The lapses mean he might arrive at work early to stay on top of his VA job helping other veterans find work. He sets up multiple reminders on his phone and computer.
"I actually get a pass on birthdays sometimes," said Green.