A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have embarked on a new project to create an implantable device in the brain that would read and alter the emotions of someone with a mental illness.
The team is working in collaboration with researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, on a new program funded by the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The researchers are working to create an implantable device that can sense abnormal activity in the brain using algorithms, and then deliver electrical impulses to certain parts of the brain that would suppress the abnormal signals.
“Imagine if I have an addiction to alcohol and I have a craving,” Jose Carmena, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who is involved in the project, told MIT Technology Review. “We could detect that feeling and then stimulate inside the brain to stop it from happening.”
Mental illness and suicide rates among the US military have spiked over the past decade, the National Institute of Mental Healthreports.
The current research is part of DARPA’s emerging neurotechnology therapy program which investigates new approaches to treat neuropsychological illnesses among military servicemembers and veterans.
Their goal is to treat at least seven psychiatric conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and fibromyalgia.
“The goal is something that can not only help our returning warriors, but have a broader implications for the civilian population as well,” Dr. Emad Eskander a neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and the principal research investigator, told Boston.com.
“We’re excited about the potential to help a very needing group of people,” he said.
The premise of the research is similar to deep brain stimulation, which also uses electrical stimulation to alter brain signals. However, deep brain stimulation is mostly used to treat movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, where the pathways of the disorder are better understood than neuropsychiatric disorders, Eskander said.
In deep brain stimulation, the stimulators use what’s known as an “open loop system,” where the clinician adjusts the electrodes, which are manually adjusted over time. For the current research, experts will use closed-loop stimulators which immediately respond to feedback in the brain, Eskander said.
However, the researchers face many challenges.
Among them, they will need to find out how the stimulators will be able to interpret the abnormal brain activity for mental disorders.
“There’s not a lot of data on the patterns of activity in the brain with these disorders and where and what to stimulate to treat,” said Eskander.
Eskander said the team hopes to begin studying the device in humans by 2019.
“We have to be cautious,” he said. “There are a lot of challenges that we face both in the scientific and engineering realm.”