Neuroscientists, engineers and physicians are teaming up for an ambitious five-year, $26 million project to develop new techniques for tackling mental illness. By using devices implanted in the brain, they aim to target and correct malfunctioning neural circuits in conditions such as clinical depression, addiction and anxiety disorders.
The project was announced today (Tuesday, May 27) by the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of its Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program.
The heart of the project lies at the Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses (CNEP), a UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco collaboration that kicked off in 2011 with a pioneering vision to use engineering techniques to repair neural circuits that have gone awry. Eleven of the researchers on the project are members of CNEP.
In addition to the investigators from UCSF and UC Berkeley, the multi-institutional project brings together researchers from Cornell University and New York University with industry partners from Cortera Neurotechnologies and Posit Science. Project members will be working under a collaborative agreement between UCSF and DARPA, and in conjunction with scientists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is receiving separate funding from DARPA as part of this research.
“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,” said CNEP co-director Dr. Edward Chang, UCSF neurosurgeon and principal investigator of the project.
Moving beyond motor networks
Brain implants emitting electrical signals have been used for more than 15 years to treat the motor symptoms of disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor, a nerve system disorder characterized by involuntary shaking.
“We will use new technology to record from large-scale brain networks that are relevant to neuropsychiatric disorders, and apply precise electrical stimulation to unlearn dysfunction in these networks,” said CNEP co-director Jose Carmena, UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and of neuroscience. “This project could dramatically change the landscape of treatment options for a range of mental conditions.”
Carmena, an expert in brain-machine interfaces, will coordinate the UC Berkeley research team on this project, which officially launches June 1. The other UC Berkeley researchers are Jonathan Wallis and Dr. Robert Knight, professors of psychology and of neuroscience; Jan Rabaey, Elad Alon and Michel Maharbiz, professor and associate professors, respectively, of electrical engineering and computer sciences; and Friedrich (Fritz) Sommer, adjunct associate professor at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience.
Knight is former director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, where Carmena, Sommer and Wallis also have appointments. Rabaey and Maharbiz are also co-founders of Cortera, a Berkeley-based company which designs medical devices to treat neurological conditions.
More targeted than current treatments
The researchers noted that limited treatment options are now available for mental disorders. There are drugs that affect a specific molecular target, but since any one target might be involved in multiple pathways, use of these medications can lead to unwanted side effects. Another option is psychotherapy, which is expensive, with mixed rates of success.
“The exciting thing about this project is that it enables us to do something that is not just incrementally better,” said Wallis. “This can be a big leap. We’re developing an entirely different approach to the treatment of mental illness by using brain implants to target a small population of neurons involved in neuropsychiatric disorders instead of using drugs that change broad swaths of activity.”
The project also opens up the possibility that maladaptive circuits can be permanently changed, essentially curing patients of their psychiatric disorders.
Mapping, designing, testing
The project begins with physician researchers from UCSF measuring and identifying brain signaling pathways specifically associated with anxiety and depression. The UC Berkeley, UCSF and NYU neuroscientists will then be charged with designing and testing in animal models devices that will monitor neural activity and deliver electrical stimulation when needed to correct abnormal brain patterns and to strengthen alternative circuits to bypass malfunctioning ones. By the end of the project, the plan is to have the devices ready for human trials.
Engineers from UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Cortera have already made headway in developing a state-of-the-art neuromodulation medical device for this project. Called OMNI, the device consists of low-power, miniaturized electronics that sense and stimulate neural networks to counteract dysfunctional circuits.
“The brain implant we’re developing has capabilities way beyond what exists today,” said UC Berkeley’s Alon. “With a 64-fold increase in the number of electrodes and the ability to cover different areas simultaneously, we will enable a much more complete view of the brain.”
“We obviously have many societal problems that stem from mental illness, and I’m excited to be developing state-of-the-art electronics that contribute toward a solution,” Alon added.
DARPA’s SUBNETS program supports President Barack Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative to develop new tools for treating, curing and even preventing a range of brain disorders.
The establishment of CNEP was spearheaded by Knight; Shankar Sastry, dean of the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley; and Dr. Mitchel Berger, professor and chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery at UCSF.
- Journey of Discovery Starts toward Understanding and Treating Networks of the Brain (DARPA press release)
- New venture aims to understand and heal disrupted brain circuitry to treat mental illness (UCSF press release)
- UC Berkeley, UCSF join forces to advance frontier of brain repair (UC Berkeley-UCSF press release CNEP)
- BRAIN Initiative (White House website)