In March 2016, DARPA announced the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) program, an effort to enlist the body’s peripheral nervous system to achieve something that has long been considered the brain’s domain alone: facilitation of learning. Work on TNT has now begun. The crux of the wide-ranging program is to identify optimal and safe neurostimulation methods for activating “synaptic plasticity”—a natural process in the brain, pivotal to learning, that involves the strengthening or weakening of the junctions between two neurons—then build those methods into enhanced training regimens that accelerate the acquisition of cognitive skills.
TNT was inspired by recent research showing that stimulation of certain peripheral nerves can activate regions of the brain involved with learning. Such signals can potentially trigger synaptic plasticity by releasing neurochemicals that reorganize neural connections in response to specific experiences. TNT researchers will strive to identify the physiological mechanisms that might allow this natural process to be enhanced using electrical stimulation of peripheral nerves, making the brain more adaptive during key points in the learning process.
“DARPA is approaching the study of synaptic plasticity from multiple angles to determine whether there are safe and responsible ways to enhance learning and accelerate training for skills relevant to national security missions,” said Doug Weber, the TNT Program Manager.
DARPA is funding eight efforts at seven institutions in a coordinated research program that focuses initially on the fundamental science of brain plasticity and aims to conclude with human trials in healthy volunteers. To facilitate transition into real-world applications, some of the teams will work with intelligence analysts and foreign language specialists to understand how they train currently so that the TNT platform might be refined around their needs. The program will also compare the efficacy of invasive (via an implanted device) versus non-invasive stimulation, investigate how to avoid potential risks and side effects of stimulation, and hold a workshop on the ethics of using neurostimulation to enhance learning.
The first half of the TNT program focuses on deciphering the neural mechanisms underlying the influence of nerve stimulation on brain plasticity; discovering physiological indicators that can verify when stimulation is working effectively; and identifying and mitigating any potential side effects of nerve stimulation. The second half of the program will focus on using the technology in a variety of training exercises to measure improvements in the rate and extent of learning.
The institutions listed below are leading teams exploring aspects of using stimulation to activate plasticity.
DARPA will support a future regulatory science effort within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which approved VNS for the treatment of epilepsy and depression. FDA scientists, led by Dr. Srikanth Vasudevan, will further explore the safety and efficacy of VNS in an animal model, including an examination of any role the sex of the animal may have on potential effects of chronic use of VNS.
DARPA’s TNT efforts differ from the Agency’s previous neuroscience and neurotechnology endeavors by seeking not to restore lost function but to advance capabilities in healthy individuals. By the end of the planned four-year program, DARPA aims to demonstrate that TNT methods and technologies can yield at least a 30 percent improvement in learning rate and/or skill performance over traditional training regimens, with minimal negative side effects.
“The Defense Department operates in a complex, interconnected world in which human skills such as communication and analysis are vital, and the Department has long pushed the frontiers of training to maximize those skills,” Weber said. “DARPA’s goal with TNT is to further enhance the most effective existing training methods so the men and women of our Armed Forces can operate at their full potential.”
Recognizing that these new technologies for learning and training could raise social and ethical issues, the TNT program is funding Arizona State University to host a national ethics workshop within the first year of the program. The workshop will engage scientists, bioethicists, regulators, military specialists, and others in discussion of those issues, and will produce for wider consideration a report on potential ethical issues relating to cognitive enhancement for warfighters.
TNT is a fundamental research effort. Teams performing the research are encouraged to publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals.
Image Caption: The primary goal of the Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) program is to understand the basic mechanisms linking neurostimulation to plasticity. Applying that knowledge, TNT technology will be designed to safely and precisely stimulate peripheral nerves to control synaptic plasticity at optimal points during cognitive skills training.
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