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.