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DARPA Funds AI-Based Brain Implants to Treat Depression


The Pentagon is hoping to provide relief to soldiers with chronic depression or PTSD through the use of implantable electrodes.

The treatment of mental health conditions with electricity was one of the great medical controversies of the 20th century. The use and, as critics argued, overuse of electroconvulsive therapy led to negative depictions in media (including an Oscar-winning film) and heavy stigmatization.

Electric pulses, however, can be a viable, safe, and clinically-proven mood therapy when applied correctly. Today, the concept is getting a 21st century update: artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled electrodes implanted directly in the brain.

According to Nature, 2 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-funded research teams reported on work they are doing with deep-brain stimulation (DBS) at a neuroscience meeting in November. The researchers hope to better understand how conditions like chronic depression are reflected in the brain in order to target the symptoms with electric pulses.

DBS is radically different from treatments like electroconvulsive therapy. It has shown success in managing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but to date it has been less effective against depression. By personalizing the delivery of pulses and delivering them intermittently rather than constantly, the belief is that these approaches can succeed where others have failed.

The teams are from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Both are using subjects with epilepsy who have pre-existing implants to map the brain and develop their algorithms, though with different approaches. The MGH team is trying to map the brain based on areas of activity associated with multi-condition behaviors, like concentration. The UCSF team is mapping the subjects’ brains over time while also gathering details about their moods to see how the information corresponds.

The research centers around closed-loop stimulation, in which a well-developed algorithm allows the implants to detect brain signals and react by delivering a pulse to the correct part of the brain at the correct time. The UCSF group says that they are prepared to test their system when they find a volunteer that fits the bill, and that they have already done some testing in the past.

DARPA is funding the research in hopes of providing relief to soldiers with chronic depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The initiative, if successful, could produce an impressive intervention for common and serious mental health conditions. Determining when a patient’s mood necessitates an electrical pulse would no longer fall on a doctor’s judgment, although it remains to be seen if patients would entrust that decision to AI.

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