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, and depression. The program, called ElectRx, 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, which appears to be capable of curing/regulating various conditions 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. 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. 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 and attached to specific nerve fibers, for very precise stimulation.
While these implants can’t regulate every condition or replace every medication — at least not yet — they could be very effective at mitigating a large number of conditions. Basically, a large number of conditions are caused by your nervous system misfiring — most notably inflammatory diseases, but also potentially brain and mental health disorders. Currently, a variety of drugs are used to try and cajole these awry neurons and nerves back in-line by manipulating various neurotransmitters — but the same effect could be created with an electronic implant that “catches” the misfire, cleans up the signal, and then retransmits it.
“The technology DARPA plans to develop through the ElectRx program could fundamentally change the manner in which doctors diagnose, monitor and treat injury and illness,” says DARPA’s Doug Weber. “Instead of relying only on medication — we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker. It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”
Despite requiring a lot of novel technological breakthroughs, DARPA is planning to perform human trials of ElectRx in about five years. The initial goal will be improving the quality of life for US soldiers and veterans — though there’s no word on which condition DARPA will focus on. Something “simple” like arthritis is most likely, but I’m sure there’s a lot of interest in curing/regulating post-traumatic stress disorder as well. Earlier in the year, DARPA announced a similar program to develop a brain implant that can restore lost memories and experiences.
While DARPA’s ElectRx announcement is purely focused on the medical applications of miniature neural implants, there are of course a variety of other uses that might arise from elective implantation — both for soldiers, but also for civilians. With a few well-placed implants on your spine, you could flip a switch and ignore any pain reported by your limbs, allowing you to push your body harder and faster. With precision-placed implants around the right nerve fibers, you could gain manual control of your organs — you could slow down or speed up your heart, turbo-charge your liver, or tweak just about any other function of your body. Transhumanism here we come.