DARPA to back research on peripheral nerve stimulation to boost brain plasticity, learning

How targeted neuroplasticity training (TNT)--Courtesy of DARPA (click to enlarge)

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would like to help create an external device that can be used for targeted neuroplasticity training (TNT). The idea is to use the stimulation of peripheral nerves to reorganize neuronal connections in the brain in response to specific experiences. It's expected to help accelerate learning and support retention of learned skills.

The agency didn't disclose how much it expects to invest in TNT research, but it is planning to hold an event on April 8 to explain to potential research participants the objectives of the TNT program in Arlington, VA.

DARPA already has research programs seeking to harness peripheral nerve stimulation to replace drugs in disease treatment, accelerate healing and control advanced prosthetic limbs that restore tactile sensation.

This new TNT program seeks to promote cognitive skills training via the precise activation of peripheral nerves. It will purse the development of a platform technology that can be applied to a wide range of cognitive skills. The ultimate goal is to reduce the cost and duration of the U.S. Defense Department's training regimen and improve its outcomes.

"Recent research has shown that stimulation of certain peripheral nerves, easily and painlessly achieved through the skin, can activate regions of the brain involved with learning," said TNT Program Manager Doug Weber in a statement, adding that the signals can potentially trigger the release of neurochemicals in the brain that reorganize neural connections in response to specific experiences.

He continued, "This natural process of synaptic plasticity is pivotal for learning, but much is unknown about the physiological mechanisms that link peripheral nerve stimulation to improved plasticity and learning. You can think of peripheral nerve stimulation as a way to reopen the so-called 'critical period' when the brain is more facile and adaptive. TNT technology will be designed to safely and precisely modulate peripheral nerves to control plasticity at optimal points in the learning process."

To support its TNT program, DARPA intends to invest in fundamental research including on how nerve stimulation influences synaptic plasticity, how cognitive skill learning processes are regulated in the brain, and how to boost these processes to safely accelerate skill acquisition while avoiding potential side effects.

The engineering-focused portion will target non-invasive device development to deliver peripheral stimulation to enhance cognitive function. TNT is expected to span multidisciplinary teams across cognitive neuroscience, neural plasticity, electrophysiology, systems neurophysiology, biomedical engineering, human performance, and computational modeling.

- here is the announcement