Neural implants studied as treatment for mental illness

Neural implant

In the Laurence Livermore Laboratory's Center for Bioengineering, scientist Sat Pannu and his team are working on devices that look like long strings of plastic wiring, but are meant as neural implants to heal damaged brains.

The implants are fitted with dozens of tiny micro-electrodes and can monitor the electrical activity of brains damaged by physical injury or mental illness. They are able to provide stimulus to help the brain compensate for what's been lost. At least in theory.

Research has been going well so far, however, and Pannu and his team are hopeful that the technology will begin to deliver on its promises in the next few years. These deep-brain stimulation implants have possibilities for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain, traumatic brain injuries, schizophrenia, and more.

The project is now in the early stages of animal testing and is part of a larger array of brain research happening at Livermore using variations of the implant technology. Success has been found with retinal implants to help blind people see. Other research using the implants is looking at restoring memory functions after brain trauma or surgery.

Funding for the work comes largely from the Department of Defense (via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA), who are interested in finding ways to treat the growing number of brain injuries that occur during modern warfare. The work is also part of the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative from the White House. DARPA hopes that the implants could provide hope for the 2.2 million veterans and active military personnel who have sought help for mental disorders.


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