News Feature | May 29, 2014

DARPA-Funded Program To Map Brain Circuits, Create New Treatment Devices

By Joel Lindsey


A group of researchers and scientists from a variety of institutions will soon begin work on the Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program, a massive research initiative focused on discovering permanent cures for psychiatric disorders such as anxiety disorders, depression, and addiction.

The program is part of President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and will be funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It will bring together researchers from the University of California San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Cornell University, New York University, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and other institutions.

In their efforts to discover new treatments for psychiatric disorders, researchers involved in the project plan on following a two-part approach: map the brain and create new treatment devices.

The first portion of the project will use specialized imaging equipment to record the brain activities of individuals with certain types of disorders. These recordings will then be used to create highly detailed maps of which brain circuits are involved in different psychiatric disorders.

“Human brain recording can now reveal aspects of mental illness that have been inaccessible to scientists and doctors,” Edward F. Chang, UCSF neurosurgeon and a team leader on the new project, said in a press release published recently on UCSF’s website. “By analyzing patterns of interaction among brain regions known to be involved in mental illness we can get a more detailed look than ever before at what might be malfunctioning, and we can then develop technology to correct it.”

Building on the brain’s ability to rewire itself through neuroplasticity, researchers will use the maps generated in the first portion of the project to create devices capable of delivering electrical stimulation to certain parts of the brain. Researchers hope this type of electrical treatment could help the brain “un-learn” the detrimental patterns of signaling underlying disorders while also strengthening alternative circuits that might lead to different psychiatric outcomes.

“In this new project ... we are using the same BMI (brain-machine interface) concepts we have been using for the past 10 years,” said José M. Carmena, a research team leader at UC Berkeley. “After learning how large-scale brain circuits work in such conditions as depression, anxiety, and addiction, we will design an implantable BMI that can detect abnormal activity and electrically stimulate some locations in these circuits to alleviate symptoms.”

According to UCSF’s press release, all brain recordings generated by this project will be made freely available to any other researchers in the hopes that this data will continue to catalyze the development of new treatment techniques and medical devices.

“DARPA is in the business of creating not just science, but new technologies,” Justin Sanchez, the DARPA program manager for the SUBNETS project, said in a press release on DARPA’s website. “The neurotechnologies we will work to develop under SUBNETS could give new tools to the medical community to treat patients who don’t respond to other therapies, and new knowledge to the neuroscience community to expand the understanding of brain function. We believe this will be a foundational program.”

Image Credit: DARPA