The Electric Brain

image from DARPA.

In March 2016, DARPA announced the…TNT was inspired by recent research showing that stimulation of certain peripheral nerves can activate regions of the brain involved with learning. Such signals can potentially trigger synaptic plasticity by releasing neurochemicals that reorganize neural connections in response to specific experiences. TNT researchers will strive to identify the physiological mechanisms that might allow this natural process to be enhanced using electrical stimulation of peripheral nerves, making the brain more adaptive during key points in the learning process.

“DARPA is approaching the study of synaptic plasticity from multiple angles to determine whether there are safe and responsible ways to enhance learning and accelerate training for skills relevant to national security missions,” said Doug Weber, the TNT Program Manager.  DARPA is funding eight efforts at seven institutions in a coordinated research program that focuses initially on the fundamental science of brain plasticity and aims to conclude with human trials in healthy volunteers. To facilitate transition into real-world applications, some of the teams will work with intelligence analysts and foreign language specialists to understand how they train currently so that the TNT platform might be refined around their needs. The program will also compare the efficacy of invasive (via an implanted device) versus non-invasive stimulation, investigate how to avoid potential risks and side effects of stimulation, and hold a workshop on the ethics of using neurostimulation to enhance learning.

DARPA’s TNT efforts differ from the Agency’s previous neuroscience and neurotechnology endeavors by seeking not to restore lost function but to advance capabilities in healthy individuals. By the end of the planned four-year program, DARPA aims to demonstrate that TNT methods and technologies can yield at least a 30 percent improvement in learning rate and/or skill performance over traditional training regimens, with minimal negative side effects.

Recognizing that these new technologies for learning and training could raise social and ethical issues, the TNT program is funding Arizona State University to host a national ethics workshop within the first year of the program.

Excerpts from TNT Researchers Set Out to Advance Pace and Effectiveness of Cognitive Skills Training, Apr. 26, 2017

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