DARPA Wants to Hack Your Brain

DARPA hack brain neurostimulation device
DARPA wants to improve the brain's ability to learn through "targeted neuroplasticity training." DARPA

The secretive U.S. military research division DARPA has announced plans to create a device that could accelerate learning in the human brain.

The targeted neuroplasticity training (TNT) program uses a method that claims to be able to improve cognitive skills by stimulating peripheral nerves.

"Recent research has shown that stimulation of certain peripheral nerves, easily and painlessly achieved through the skin, can activate regions of the brain involved with learning," said TNT program manager Doug Weber.

"This natural process of synaptic plasticity is pivotal for learning, but much is unknown about the physiological mechanisms that link peripheral nerve stimulation to improved plasticity and learning."

DARPA—which stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—already has programs underway involving the peripheral nervous system, which it hopes will eventually be used as a substitute for drugs to treat diseases and help accelerate healing.

Unlike previous programs, however, TNT aims to not just restore lost function but also advance capabilities beyond normal levels.

Few details have been given about the device DARPA plans to engineer to facilitate the accelerated learning, other than it will be "non-invasive."

"You can think of peripheral nerve stimulation as a way to reopen the so-called 'critical period' when the brain is more facile and adaptive," Weber said.

"TNT technology will be designed to safely and precisely modulate peripheral nerves to control plasticity at optimal points in the learning process."

DARPA is hosting a Proposers Day on April 8 at the Westin Arlington Gateway in Virginia to familiarize neuroscientists, biomedical engineers and other potential participants with TNT.