Defense Media Network

Beyond the BRAIN Initiative

DARPA's neurological research could have further applications

Last month the Obama Administration unveiled a research project it hopes Congress will fund to the tune of $100 million in Fiscal 2014. The so-called BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) would involve the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA plans to invest roughly $50 million in 2014 with the goal of understanding the dynamic functions of the brain and demonstrating breakthrough applications based on these insights. The stated research goal is to bolster understanding of how the brain records, processes, uses, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information. (There’s a political/economic angle too – the administration says the initiative will create jobs and return a value of $141 for each dollar invested.)

BRAIN Initiative

President Barack Obama is introduced by Dr. Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health, at the BRAIN Initiative event in the East Room of the White House, April 2, 2013. White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

The research results, it is hoped, will lead to therapeutic and restoration-of-function treatments for neurological injuries and disease. Not surprisingly, any advance in our ability to treat neurological and nervous system injuries as well as associated diseases would be of tremendous benefit to the warfighter community.

“This kind of knowledge of brain function could lead to insights into brain injury and recovery mechanisms, and enable new diagnostics, therapies and devices to repair traumatic injury,” DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar affirmed.

No doubt, those possibilities exist. DARPA has organized its research into six programs to drive applications, manufacture sensing systems for neuroscience applications, and to analyze large data sets. They include:

  • Revolutionizing Prosthetics
  • Restorative Encoding Memory Integration Neural Device
  • Reorganization and Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery
  • Enabling Stress Resistance
  • Reliable Neutral Interface Technology, Blast Gauge
  • Detection and Computational Analysis of Psychological Signals

But what else might the research yield? DARPA’s press release on the BRAIN Initiative – “Better Understanding of Human Brain Supports National Security” – suggests further logical questions. Chief among them is what strategic or tactical applications might the research lead to?

DARPA says it will give thought to ethical questions raised by the research outcomes. Despite the basic nature of the research, the agency will likely have theorized about the possible data-mining/analysis, intelligence, ISR, and policy planning benefits research in some of these areas might yield if applied.

We put the question to DARPA’s Dr. Geoffrey Ling, Deputy Director, Defense Sciences Office.

Dr. Ling:

“U.S. technology leadership has been a cornerstone of national security for many decades, and today’s military and deterrent capabilities are critically reliant on core technologies such as materials, electronics, and information technologies. Looking ahead, a differentiated technology base in these and other fields will continue to be vital to U.S. national security.”

“The BRAIN Initiative will accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.  These technologies will allow scientists to explore how the brain records, processes, uses, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information, and shed light on the complex links between brain function and behavior. An increased understanding of how the brain stores, processes and transforms information could also inform the design of next generation computers.”

Brain Injury Awareness Month

In an effort to help educate beneficiaries on what brain injury services and support are available, a Brain Injury Awareness Open House was held March 21, 2013 at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Pacific Regional Medical Command’s Traumatic Brain Injury Program, is a comprehensive program which provides a continuum of integrated care and services for active duty service members and other beneficiaries with TBI. The goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to develop an understanding of the brain and to come up with new technology that can help treat brain injuries. DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth

“DARPA’s current and planned investments, combined with a wide array of other technology programs, reflects the agency’s focus on creating a future U.S. technology base in support of national security objectives. DARPA is interested in applications – such as a new generation of information processing systems and restoration mechanisms – that dramatically improve the way we diagnose and treat warfighters suffering from post-traumatic stress, brain injury, and memory loss.”

“The promise of breakthroughs in understanding how the human brain functions is inspiring. Not only could this research unlock the mysteries of neurological diseases and disorders, but could also yield invaluable insight into what makes us uniquely human. Pioneering research often has the potential to raise new ethical challenges. We of course must be careful in how we handle and use this new understanding.  The president will direct his Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to explore the ethical, legal and societal implications raised by both this research initiative and other recent advances in neuroscience to ensure that this research progresses responsibly.”

There are many concerned about how the research might progress. In an April 10 blog posting for Huffington Post Science, psychologist Kelly Bulkeley raised issues ranging from privacy and diversity to the potential of applying BRAIN research to tactical situations:

“What if the researchers discover how to de-sensitize soldiers to traumatizing incidents during combat? Would we sanction the military using that information to produce emotion-free troops? These and other dystopian possibilities are not merely the vain musings of science fiction.”


Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...