DARPA researching devices to help human body self-heal

Researchers hope to discover new, minimally-invasive, near automatic methods of managing chronic physical and mental conditions in the body.

By Stephen Feller

ARLINGTON, Va., Oct. 6 (UPI) -- Seven research teams have been selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to begin mapping out the neural circuits of the body and develop preliminary concepts for minimally invasive technology that can manage disease as it develops.

ElectRx, short for Electrical Prescriptions, is one of 19 programs aimed at improving the mental and physical health of U.S troops and veterans that received the green light from President Obama last year.


ElectRx received $78.9 million in funding over five years to investigate and develop the technology that will potentially allow the body to monitor and heal itself as soon as something goes wrong. The goal is a closed-loop system inside the body to manage chronic pain, inflammatory disease, post-traumatic stress and other illnesses that may not be responsive to traditional treatments.

The concept is based loosely on the cardiac pacemaker, which uses pulses of electricity to keep the heart beating steadily.

"The peripheral nervous system is the body's information superhighway, communicating a vast array of sensory and motor signals that monitor our health status and effect changes in brain and organ functions to keep us healthy," said Doug Weber, manager of DARPA's ElectRx program, in a press release. "We envision technology that can detect the onset of disease and react automatically to restore health by stimulating peripheral nerves to modulate functions in the brain, spinal cord and internal organs."



Phase 1 of ElectRx includes 7 research teams, all of which are investigating either the potential for such devices or ways to implant them: Circuit Therapeutics is working on experimental optogenetic methods for treating neuropathic pain; Researchers at Columbia University will pursue the use of targeted ultrasound for neuromodulation for chronic intervention in the operations of nerves; A team at Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health will map the nerve pathways that underlie intestinal inflammation; Researchers at Johns Hopkins will focus on the roots of inflammatory bowel disease and the effect of nerve stimulation on its progression; Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology are researching the adrenal gland and ways to govern its function; Researchers at Purdue University are studying inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract; and a team at the University of Texas is investigating vagal nerve stimulation to induce neural plasticity for the treatment of post-traumatic stress.

"Through the combination of a growing understanding of how the nervous system regulates many aspects of our health and advancing technology to measure and stimulate nerve signals, I believe we're poised to make fundamental changes to the way we diagnose and treat disease," Weber said. "To that end, DARPA has assembled a performer team and outlined a research way-ahead that we anticipate can move us toward a capability to safely and reliably modulate the peripheral nervous system to fight disease."


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