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Tech by VICE

DARPA Is Developing Implants That Can Heal Soldiers’ Bodies and Minds

The US military’s foremost futurists just got funding to build tiny chips that can treat inflammatory disease and mental illness.

by Jordan Pearson
Aug 27 2014, 9:25pm

An Air Force doctor examines a CT scan in March. Image: Air Force

Every time we hear about a new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project—like bioengineering new life forms or enlisting preteens to test advanced military software—it's like being pulled into the pages of a pulpy scifi paperback. The agency's newest project continues this trend: implantable chips that can heal soldiers' bodies and minds.

The goal of the program, dubbed ElectRX, is the development of tiny chips that can be injected into soldiers with a needle to act as pacemakers for the nervous system. By precisely stimulating the right nerve endings with minute electromagnetic signals, the implants will treat painful and chronic inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and mental illnesses, researchers say.

What's more, a joint fact sheet released by the Department of Defense and the Veteran's Association revealed that DARPA scored a cool 78 million dollars to build the chips as part of the US government's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) program.

"Instead of relying only on medication—we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker," said Doug Weber, DARPA program manager, in a statement. "It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body's own systems."

DARPA's vision of a digitally-monitored soldier. Image: DARPA

Although treating physical ailments is first on the agenda for ElectRX, DARPA is looking to eventually expand the treatment possibilities of the chips to mental illnesses like PTSD.

DARPA has been working on chips that can treat mental illness through its Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program for over a year, and ElectRX appears to be building upon the research undertaken so far. SUBNETS, like ElectRX, aims to use electrical impulses to regulate abnormal impulses caused by the disorder in question.

Devices that treat diseases with electrical pulses are already used in clinical settings, but DARPA researchers say they're about the size of a deck of cards. This poses a series of problems. For one, sticking something that large inside of you is bound to smart, and the devices often cause side effects due to their lack of precision. ElectRX aims to solve both of these problems.

The issue of size is somewhat self-explanatory—they're going to make the chips miniscule. The precision element is both tricky and interesting in turn: tricky, because extremely advanced biosensors and electromagnetic devices need to be invented in order to target nerve endings with precision, the researchers say. The interesting part is that when it comes to stimulating nerve endings to treat an individual's ailments, precision also means personalization.

The military has made gains in the field of hyper-personalized medicine and healthcare recently. The Army, for instance, has been looking into being able to bioprint replacement skin tailored to an individual soldiers' needs on the spot. 3D-printed food containing a cocktail of vitamins tailored to specific dietary needs is also in the works.

Even if ElectRX implants are far off—just another entry into DARPA's growing collection of totally bonkers science projects—we could be looking at a future where soldiers are implanted with chips that regulate their chronic diseases, fed with food designed to meet their unique dietary needs, and healed with body parts printed just for them. 

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