The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new, advanced technologies in order to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military. DARPA recently announced that it will commit $70 million over the next five years to the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative. More specifically, to further investigate Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS).
Deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery is an FDA-approved treatment that has been proven to significantly reduce the tremor associated with ET. In DBS surgery, a wire (electrode or lead) is placed in the ventral intermediate nucleus (VIM) nucleus of the thalamus, located deep in the brain. The wire connects under the skin to a pacemaker-like device in the chest, which provides mild electrical currents to control symptoms. In ET, DBS of the VIM nucleus of the thalamus is the most commonly used surgical procedure to control tremor.
Advances in technology have now opened up this option for other complex conditions such as depression, which is precisely why DARPA is so interested in the technology. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 10% to 18% of Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) troops are likely to have PTSD after they return from service. That is a significant number of men and women who may require treatment.
So what does this initiative mean for those affected by essential tremor? DARPA would like to see DBS go further than just treat symptoms. “There is no technology that can acquire signals that can tell them precisely what is going on with the brain,” says Justin Sanchez, DARPA program manager, to The New York Times. He explained that DARPA is “trying to change the game on how we approach these problems.”
DARPA hopes to develop DBS to the point that the device will be able to monitor brain signals in real time, treat illness accordingly and measure the success of that treatment. This would be a real games changer for ET patients suffering from severe tremor symptoms. Imagine never having to turn the DBS device on or off, or have it calibrated. It would be programed to know exactly how to manage individual tremor symptoms, then evaluate the results and make adjustments accordingly.
Only time will tell if DARPA is successful with this ambitious project. But even if all their goals are not realized, they are bound to discover an abundance of new information about how the brain works.