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Brain Chips, Soldiers, Pentagon, DARPA… What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

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Implantable Probe

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.

Roadside Bomb

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.

Lost Memories

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 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.”

‘Warrior Websuit’

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 e-mailed statement that while the company didn’t plan to submit a proposal, it’s starting to explore implantable devices. An IBM spokesman didn’t provide comment on whether the company was interested in bidding on the Darpa memory project.

Green, a Fayetteville, North Carolina, 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.

Source: Bloomberg

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