Dr. William J. Tyler described in a recent blog post on the Department of Defense’s Blog Armed With Science his work on transcranial pulsed ultrasound stimulation of the brain. Currently, deep brain stimulation is used somewhat successfully for the treatment of refractory depression and Parkinson’s disease. While effective, the treatments require expensive and potentially risky surgeries to implant the electrodes. In addition, once inserted, there is very little control over what areas of the brain get stimulated. Using pulsed ultrasound transcranially, Dr. Tyler claims he is able to stimulate the brain in a similar fashion without requiring any device implantation. In addition, the area of the brain being stimulated can be targeted and controlled to a very fine degree.
DARPA seems to have been excited by this technology, and funded the technology for potential use in helmets of soldiers on the battlefield. We’ll let Dr. Tyler describe its potential uses:
Through a recent grant made by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award Program, our research will begin undergoing the next phases of research and development aimed towards engineering future applications using this neurotechnology for our country’s warfighters. Here, we will continue exploring the influence of ultrasound on brain function and begin using transducer phased arrays to examine the influence of focused ultrasound on intact brain circuits. We will also be investigating the use of capacitive micromachined ultrasonic transducers (CMUTs) for use in brain stimulation. Finally, to improve upon spatial resolution, we will examine the use of acoustic metamaterials and hyperlenses to study how subdiffraction limited ultrasound influences brain wave activity patterns.
How can this technology be used to provide our nation’s Warfighters with strategic advantages? We have developed working and conceptual prototypes in which ballistic helmets can be fitted with ultrasound transducers and microcontroller devices to illustrate potential applications as shown below. We look forward to developing a close working relationship with DARPA and other Department of Defense and U.S. Intelligence Communities to bring some of these applications to fruition over the coming years depending on the most pressing needs of our country’s defense industries.
It’s sometimes easy to get carried away with the excitement about a new technology. Deep brain stimulation has been helpful to many patients, and developing a way to perform a similar task even better transcranially would be invaluable. However, many of the promised features and benefits of this technology for soldiers (e.g: navigational commands, cognitive enhancement, etc.) are a bit of a stretch. So, when you see headlines claiming that DARPA is controlling soldiers’ minds through ultrasound, please be appropriately skeptical. On the other hand, it does sound pretty cool when you put it that way.
More from Armed with Science: Remote Control of Brain Activity Using Ultrasound