DARPA is examining health on a nano scale through its electrical prescriptions (ElectRx) program.
The human body obviously has an amazing capacity to correct problems in its own system. There’s a huge range of conditions that we have the built-in ability to cure ourselves of, and DARPA plans to tap into this ability with ElectRx.
To understand the ElectRx program, first imagine the cardiac pacemaker – a device which delivers targeted electric shocks to the muscles of the heart to stimulate it to beat at a normal rate.
Now, imagine a device far tinier, that could be delivered through a needle. This device could be designed to constantly monitor certain conditions in the body, and then directly stimulate certain nerve pathways to trigger the body’s correct response mechanism when it’s not working as it should be. Let's say blood sugar regulation isn't working properly in a diabetic – this technology could potentially detect a blood sugar level anomaly and trigger the pancreas to release glucagon or insulin to sort it out.
The technology is already showing great promise, although current neuromodulators tend to be much larger, about the size of a deck of cards, requiring surgery to implant them in the body. Also, their large size makes it difficult to target nerves precisely, which can lead to unwanted side effects. ElectrRx aims to ultra-miniaturize these kinds of devices and explore what can be done with extreme precision.
Here’s some examples the ElextRx program is funding research into:
- Investigating whether direct triggering of the spleen or other organs could help treat rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
- Investigating whether inflammation control in the brain could help treat depression
- Investigating whether the management of neurochemicals that regulate learning and memory in the brain could offer new treatments for post-traumatic stress and other mental health disorders
- Investigating thermal activation of the adrenal gland
- Investigating the stimulation of the vagal nerve to induce neural plasticity for the treatment of post-traumatic stress
Of course, a military research organization wouldn’t be throwing some 78.9 million US dollars at something that didn’t have some tantalizing potential on the battlefield. Management of the inflammatory response could make a big difference to spinal injuries, in which frequently it’s the swelling and not the original trauma that does the worst damage. And while the above examples would surely be useful to military personnel and the broader public, there’s certainly some more sinister ideas that spring up as well.
For starters, if you put these things in people you like, you can do all sorts of positive things. But a targeted nerve stimulation device could also do all sorts of horrible things if implanted in somebody you’re less fond of, from straight out pain generation to emotional manipulation to all kinds of physical maladies.
Then there’s the super-soldier potential. Controlling hormones and brain chemistry could help put soldiers in an ideal emotional and physiological state for certain operations or training exercises. And while these things could clearly be useful, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be letting anyone’s government put them in my body.
Still, it’s fascinating technology and the potential benefits are extraordinary. Let’s see where it leads!