Treating mental illnesses across the USA is wrought with imperfections. Existing treatments like psychotherapy and medications aren't guaranteed to work, especially over time.
The military's research arm is taking a different tack in funding a $26 million project to develop a device implanted in the skull. The goal is to stimulate parts of the brain as a way to treat psychiatric disorders including depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the five-year project led by University of California, San Francisco and Massachusetts General Hospital.
An implanted device could allow researchers to stimulate specific parts of the brain in ways not previously possible.
For example, if a patient is treated for depression with Prozac, the entire brain is affected by elevated levels of serotonin, said Dr. Emad Eskandar, a neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital and one of the lead researchers on the DARPA project.
"It's much better to fix the actual part of the brain that's not working properly and not just bathe the whole brain with a chemical soup that has some undesirable side effects," Eskandar told USA TODAY Network.
Implantable devices are already used to treat Parkinson's disease, with a device implanted in the chest and a wire that runs up to the brain. But these devices can only target one or two areas of the brain, said Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager.
The DARPA-funded device could potentially be implanted between the scalp and skull and target several parts of the brain, depending on the disorder, Sanchez said.
What's more, the device will allow researchers to observe brain activity in real-time, which could be particularly helpful with disorders like PTSD that are "episodic" in nature, Eskandar said.
"Someone might hear a loud noise that triggers a fearful or anxious response," he said. "So you don't want to continuously deliver stimulation unnecessarily."
The project is part of President Obama's Brain Initiative, a $100 million effort to research brain mapping that could lead to new ways of treating a wide range of brain disorders, including Alzheimer's, autism and traumatic brain injury.
DARPA has previously funded research for implantable devices that would help restore memory.
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