DARPA’s tiny implants will hook directly into your nervous system, treat diseases and depression without medication
DARPA, on the back of the US government’s BRAIN program, has begun the development of tiny electronic implants that interface directly with your nervous system and can directly control and regulate many different diseases and chronic conditions, such as arthritis, PTSD, inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease), and depression. The program, called ElectRx (pronounced ‘electrics’), ultimately aims to replace medication with “closed-loop” neural implants, which constantly assess the state of your health, and then provide the necessary nerve stimulation to keep your various organs and biological systems functioning properly. The work is primarily being carried out with US soldiers and veterans in mind, but the technology will certainly percolate down to civilians as well.
The ElectRx program will focus on a fairly new area of medical therapies called neuromodulation. As the name implies, neuromodulation is all about modulating your nervous system, to improve or fix an underlying problem. Notable examples of neuromodulation are cochlear implants, which restore hearing by directly modulating your brain’s auditory nerve system, and deep brain stimulation (DBS), which appears to be capable of curing/regulating various conditions (depression, Parkinson’s) by overriding erroneous neural spikes with regulated, healthy stimulation.
So far, these implants have been fairly big things — about the size of a deck of cards — which makes their implantation fairly invasive (and thus quite risky). Most state-of-the-art implants also lack precision — the stimulating electrodes are usually placed in roughly the right area, but it’s currently very hard to target a specific nerve fiber (a bundle of nerves). With ElectRx, DARPA wants to miniaturize these neuromodulation implants so that they’re the same size as a nerve fiber. This way they can be implanted with a minimally invasive procedure (through a needle) and attached to specific nerve fibers, for very precise stimulation.