DARPA Wants to Put AI Electrical Implants in People's Brains to Treat Depression

A surgically implanted LED probe NASA/Getty

Government-funded brain implants might sound terrifying, but bear with us.

Research teams funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—the research arm of the U.S. military—have begun testing brain implants that deliver electrical impulses to help treat mood disorders.

Presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C., researchers from two different groups laid out how this would work. One team from UCSF proposes brain implants that are guided by an algorithm built around a "map" of a person's mood. The researchers tracked the moods and brain activity of six people, and are planning to create an algorithm that would guide the electrode to zap the brain at certain times based off that information, according to Nature News.

The other team has a broader approach: rather than focusing on a person's mood or particular mental illness, they propose delivering shocks to parts of the brain implicated in emotion and decision-making. The idea is to focus more on problems with concentration and empathy that are common across multiple kinds of mental illness.

Nathan Copeland, a quadriplegic man who had an implant placed in his brain that allowed him to control a remote robotic arm. AFP/Getty

Deep brain stimulation has been a treatment since the late 1980s that has been proven to help treat symptoms of Parkinson's. What sets this work apart is that researchers are trying to treat mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder, which are harder to target. And where past attempts to treat depression with deep brain stimulation have failed, these researchers are taking another angle.

Older research gave constant electrical impulses to the brains of people with chronic depression. That didn't work. These newer implants, the researchers say, will only unleash the electricity when and where it's needed.

Because placing electrodes in a person's brain is a tricky affair, the researchers are currently testing this in epileptic people who already have electrodes in their brains to treat seizures.

This is far from the first time DARPA's gotten involved in this kind of work. For years, the organization has been funding research with the stated goal of treating and helping soldiers with PTSD, including AI-driven, Virtual Reality "counselors" to help diagnose traumatized veterans. Ad that's only a fraction of the research in biology and other fields the organization has funded.

"You don't ever really know what DARPA wants," Edward Hammon, a biology-policy consultant, told Nature News. "But they're pretty good at finding people who are resolving questions they're interested in for other reasons."