Military looking to regulate brains with implants

29 Oct

deep-brain-stimulation-diagram-thing-640x353This is your brain. This is your brain as regulated by your smartphone.

As kooky as it sounds, it’s within the realm of possibility – or at least U.S. military scientists believe it is. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced last week that it is working on an improved version of an implanted “brain pacemaker,” or the devices that are currently being used to treat patients ranging from Parkinson’s to deep depression.

The $70 million program, which DARPA calls Systems-Based Neurotechnology and Understanding for the Treatment of Neuropsychological Illnesses, is part of the mega-neuroscience initiative announced by U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this year. The military agency, which specializes in far-out science (it created the internet and the computer mouse, among many other things), is hoping to use its discoveries to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental issues.

DARPA is “trying to change the game on how we approach these kinds of problems,” according to program director Justin Sanchez.

The implants would be next-generation chips inspired by current Deep Brain Stimulation devices, which send electrical signals to certain parts of the brain. The chips have proven to mitigate the effects of some brain diseases and have improved the quality of life for patients, although the list of possible side effects is long and somewhat troubling: apathy, hallucinations, compulsive gambling, hypersexuality, cognitive dysfunction and depression.

DARPA’s projects specialize in ambitious, and those involved generally admit as such. As the old saying goes, if you aim for the stars you might not get there, but you may at least get to the moon. Sanchez expects payoffs regardless of whether the end goal – being able to better regulate the brain’s electrical impulses – is reached: “We’re going to learn a tremendous amount about how the brain works. We’re going to be developing new medical devices,” he told the New York Times.

While the technology is being developed specifically for medical purposes, the wider uses are easy to imagine. Having a chip in one’s brain that could report back to a smartphone or other device, and then potentially allow a person to regulate his or her electrical impulses, would open up a world of possibilities – from mood control to hyper-focusing, it’s a technology that could replace all manner of drugs.

The downside, of course, is that you’d have to get something implanted in your brain, which opens up an equal number of horrific possibilities – brain hacking and remote mind control being just two of them.


Posted by on October 29, 2013 in DARPA, neuroscience


6 responses to “Military looking to regulate brains with implants

  1. A(nother) Yes Man (@elquintron)

    October 29, 2013 at 9:23 am

    I’m oversimplifying this for the sake of brevity, but this process/invention is really just the evolution of cellphone technology.

    People will resist at first, but shortly after they’re released to the public, the practicality of the implant will create an overwhelming advantage for those who have them, afterwards everyone will have one.


  2. russellmcormond

    October 29, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Given we live in a culture where the majority of citizens and the government are unconcerned with non-owner/anti-owner locks on technology, and where the government makes it illegal for owners to change these locks, I can only see potential technologies like this being more a threat than a benefit.

    We don’t need to only be worried about “brain hacking” from unauthorized third parties, given first parties are already generally treated as a threat and government protected third parties will likely remain a greater threat.

    • A(nother) Yes Man (@elquintron)

      October 29, 2013 at 3:54 pm

      The situation you describe would be exactly as it is today. 😉

      Most people, when performing the risk vs. reward calculus of having electronically enhanced brains will (eventually) chose the enhanced brain, after ethical considerations are taken into account.

      (which is probably a much larger discussion than we’re capable of having in a comments section)


  3. David Ellis

    October 29, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    Yes, DARPA (or its money) has invented plenty, though the computer mouse wasn’t one of them. Trackballs maybe, whereas the credit for the mouse should stay with the wonderful Doug Engelbart, who passed away this summer.

    • Peter Nowak

      October 29, 2013 at 1:19 pm

      DARPA (or ARPA, to be exact) funded Engelbart, so tomato-tomahto.

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