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Emerging Tech

Bio implants could relieve stress and restore sight, speech for combat warriors

For warfighters suffering from stress on and off the battlefield, and those who have given a limb or their sight for their country, the latest in bio implant technology may bring new capabilities, according to The Defense Advanced Projects Agency.

Research on stress mitigation and neural process recovery is currently being conducted through partnerships between service branch and national laboratories, as well as DARPA-funded programs, according to expert panelists at the 2017 Defense One Tech Summit.

One new technology being developed for helping warfighters endure high stress situations is an inner ear implant designed to stimulate the vagus nerve. According to medical research, when stimulated the vagus nerve releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine has the calming effect of reducing heartrate, and is also activated by meditative breathing.

Tests are being conducted by placing the implant in the ear of fighters undergoing simulated high-stress combat conditions, such as live-fire situations, reported a DARPA spokesperson. The implant makes an imperceptible “noise” in the inner ear to stimulate the nearby nerve-ending.

“If you’re in a really stressful situation…if we stimulate at the right time during that experiment, my hypothesis is that we’ll actually see better performance,” he said. “This is absolutely something our scientists are getting involved with.”

The concept of stimulating the right part of the brain at the right time is also a key component of research being conducted through DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design program. The program is currently funding a group of six different research teams, all working on neural implant technologies that combine electrical and wireless technology with human brain capabilities.

“One of the things we have tried to build in our portfolio is a set of capabilities around brain function, direct mental interface for things like movement and sensation,” explained Dr. Justin Sanchez, Director of the Biological Technologies Office at DARPA. “Think about someone who has served our country and lost ability to move or feel a limb, we can restore that function. Or…we can develop a direct interface to the brain to help facilitate the formation and recall of memory after you’ve sustained a traumatic brain injury.”

A lot of the work being done is focused on sight and speech restoration for warriors who have endured head trauma in combat.

For example, one innovation being developed by A Fondation Voir et Entendre involves finding a way to create a machine-human interface between neurons in the visual cortex of the brain and an electronic, high-definition artificial retina. According to a DARPA press release, the artificial retina would be worn over the warfighter’s eyes and function through micro-LED technology. The neuron–electronics connection would rely on implanted electrical devices.

“We’ve had to develop a next-generation hardware to interface with very precise sets of neurons,” said Sanchez. “If you had gone to any neurosurgeon in the world and asked if we could we place these sensors next to the right neurons in the brain and then sense from them their activity at the right time to actually facilitate these functions at the right time, their answer would have been no. So DARPA developed these technologies.”

Speech restoration research is being conducted by Paradromics Inc., reported DARPA. Their team is working on using micro-wire electrodes with unique complementary metal-oxide semi-conductors, which are require less power and thus may be able to be implanted in the brain. The electrodes are intended to stimulate neurons that are involved in speech capabilities, according to the DARPA press release.

The NESD program was initiated in 2016 and more research must be done before any of the technologies will reach warfighters. However, combat warriors may soon be able to perform better in stressful situations, thanks to little implants in their ears.

“The scientific and technological challenge is developing precise neuro-technologies that can go to those circuits of the brain or the peripheral nervous system in real-time, for the job that our military personnel have to do,” explained Sanchez. “We are thinking very deeply about the brain and we think about it in the context…of what our military personnel do, whether it is control complex systems, learn complex tasks, or if it’s extraordinary stress or even injury. The brain nervous system is a part of all of that.”

About the Author

Katherine Owens is a freelance reporter for Defense Systems

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