Government awards $26M to study neural implants for Parkinson's

President Obama's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative awarded up to $26 million to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, to develop mini brain implants to treat Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

Starting in June, the team will record brain activity in patients with the diseases. Their goal will be to determine the diseases' brain signaling pathways so that devices that encourage the brain to use alternative circuits can be developed, according to a statement from UC San Francisco.

Brain-machine interface technology is at the heart of the new initiative. Advances in that arena have led to treatments for movement disorders, and the researchers hope to extend the technology to the treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders like depression and chronic pain.

"Brain-machine interfaces [are] about converting thought into action, so you can think of this as having an implantable device in the brain. This BMI will translate this neural activity into control commands to drive a prosthetic actuator like a robotic arm," said neurosurgeon Jose Carmena of UC Berkeley in a YouTube video explaining the initiative. "This new project that we are starting uses the same [BMI] principles, but they are all applied to brain circuits."

His team will design, build and use the neural implants that will provide information about the optimal electric stimulation that should be delivered to correct the brain patterns, according to the statement.

Neural stimulation therapy, or the guided development of healthy brain circuits to treat psychiatric disorders, could eliminate the need for a permanent device, said neurosurgeon Edward Chang of UCSF in a university news story.

The future treatment could replace medicines as well. "We don't actually know how they [medications] work, and that would be fine if they worked great, but they don't," said psychiatrist Vikaas Sohal of UCSF in the explanatory video.

"Most people think of Parkinson's as a movement disorder, but it is in fact a neuropsychiatric disorder that includes problems with mood, thinking, anxiety, impulsivity and even a form of addiction to medication known as dopamine dysregulation syndrome. These symptoms are as fundamental a part of the disorder as slow movement or tremor," said UCSF neurosurgeon Philip Starr.

All of the brain activity recordings will be available to others via a database. Other participants in the project include Cornell University, New York University, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Bay Area companies Posit Science and Cortera Neurotechnologies.

The $100 million Brain Initiative, started in April last year, is designed to support brain research by advancing innovative neurotechnologies.

- read the UCSF news

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