DARPA has selected seven teams of researchers to begin work on the Agency’s Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx) program, which has as its goal the development of a closed-loop system that treats diseases by modulating the activity of peripheral nerves. The teams will initially pursue a diverse array of research and technological breakthroughs in support of the program’s technical goals. Ultimately, the program envisions a complete system that can be tested in human clinical trials aimed at conditions such as chronic pain, inflammatory disease, post-traumatic stress and other illnesses that may not be responsive to traditional treatments.
“The peripheral nervous system is the body’s information superhighway, communicating a vast array of sensory and motor signals that monitor our health status and effect changes in brain and organ functions to keep us healthy,“ said Doug Weber, the ElectRx program manager and a biomedical engineer who previously worked as a researcher for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “We envision technology that can detect the onset of disease and react automatically to restore health by stimulating peripheral nerves to modulate functions in the brain, spinal cord and internal organs.”
The oldest and simplest example of this concept is the cardiac pacemaker, which uses brief pulses of electricity to stimulate the heart to beat at a healthy rate. Extending this concept to other organs like the spleen may offer new opportunities for treating inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Fighting inflammation may also provide new treatments for depression, which growing evidence suggests might be caused in part by excess levels of inflammatory biomolecules. Peripheral nerve stimulation may also be used to regulate production of neurochemicals that regulate learning and memory in the brain, offering new treatments for post-traumatic stress and other mental health disorders.
“Through the combination of a growing understanding of how the nervous system regulates many aspects of our health and advancing technology to measure and stimulate nerve signals, I believe we’re poised to make fundamental changes to the way we diagnose and treat disease,” Weber said. “To that end, DARPA has assembled a performer team and outlined a research way-ahead that we anticipate can move us toward a capability to safely and reliably modulate the peripheral nervous system to fight disease.”
The main thrusts for Phase I of ElectRx are fundamental studies to map the neural circuits governing the physiology of diseases of interest to DARPA and preliminary development of novel, minimally invasive neural and bio-interface technologies with unprecedented levels of precision, targeting and scale. The teams include a mix of first-time and prior DARPA performers. Many have partnered with established medical device manufacturers to support trials in the near term and ultimately facilitate transition of ElectRx interface devices as they mature.
“Using the peripheral nervous system as a medium for delivering therapy is largely new territory and it’s rich with potential to manage many of the conditions that impact the readiness of our military and, more generally, the health of the nation,” Weber said. “It will be an exciting path forward.”
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