DARPA’s SUBNETS program seeks new technology for analyzing neural activity across different parts of the brain to enable next-generation therapies tailored to individual patients.
Lasers may bring to mind military-grade weaponry or the pew-pew sounds of science fiction blasters, but powerful laser tech can be used for less destructive purposes. Scientists and engineers are now aiming lasers at persistent problems like air turbulence, inoperable tumors and drug addiction. Here's a look at the ways zapping something with a beam of light can actually help rather than hurt.
J.P. Wolf / University of Geneva
Scientists -- and super villains -- have long wanted to control the weather with technology. What once seemed like a wild dream has become possible in theory. In late 2013, the World Meteorological Organization conference in Geneva held a Laser, Weather and Climate conference where participants discussed controlling lightning and condensation with laser assists.
More recently researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Arizona surrounded one laser beam with another, a technique they think could help a high-energy beam go greater distances.
In 2010, neurosurgeons from Washington University were among the first in the United States to use a laser probe on brain tumors thought to be inoperable. The team, led by chief of neurosurgery Ralph G. Dacey Jr., employed the new MRI-guided probe from Monteris Medical to kill cancer cells deep in a patient’s brain, leaving the surrounding tissue intact. Last year the laser probe, called the NeuroBlate Thermal Therapy System, was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.
Laser beams could be the key to getting hearts beating correctly, an alternative to current electrode-based pacemakers that can do damage to heart muscle over the long-term. In 2010, scientists from Case Western University and Vanderbilt University successfully paced a live quail embryo heart with light from an infrared laser.
While we don’t quite have human optical pacemakers yet, a team from the University College London recently made headway with a separate laser-based technique. They’re hoping to create an “optical pacemaker” for the diaphragm that could help patients with motor neuron diseases like ALS breathe independently.
Apira Science Inc.
Apira Science Inc.’s iGrow helmet to combat baldness may not look serious at first, but the company says this low-level laser therapy has been proven effective at stimulating cell activity around weak hair follicles. The helmet interior has red laser and LED light diodes that go to work in multiple weekly sessions over several months.
Apria points to an article in the journal Lasers in Surgery and Medicine that concluded low level laser therapy improved hair counts for men with alopecia compared to a placebo light-up helmet.
B. Chen / NIDA
Could controlling addiction be as easy as flipping a switch? In 2013, scientists from the National Institutes of Health and the University of California were able to turn off compulsive behavior in rats through a combination of genetic engineering and laser light delivered through fiber optic cables. When they turned on a laser light in the brain region responsible for decision-making and impulse control, the compulsive cocaine seeking was gone, according to researcher Antonello Bonci.
While lasers were used for the study, techniques like noninvasive transcranial magnetic stimulation would probably be used for human trials.
Craik Sustainable Living Project, Flickr Creative Commons
A team from Leibniz University Hanover led by biosystems engineering professor Thomas Rath has been working on a way to eradicate pesky weeds with lasers. In 2012 he and his colleagues investigated mid-infrared range lasers as an alternative to herbicides.
A year later Leibniz University engineers shifted their focus and began studying the effects of near-infrared lasers on pests like aphids and whiteflies. They hope the right lase blast will safely kill the pests while leaving the host plants unaffected.
Last summer frequent fliers got a glimmer of hope for smoother travel. Researchers at the German Aerospace Center DLR’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics began testing technology that can detect turbulence, particularly the clear air kind that’s nearly impossible to predict. The device goes onboard a plane and emits short-wave ultraviolet laser radiation along the direction of flight, according to DLR. This reveals fluctuations in air density that indicate turbulence ahead. DRL has been testing the tech on flights in Europe with the goal of extending the detection distance to 20 miles.
lloydabell34, Flickr Creative Commons
Stanford University bioengineering, psychiatry and behavioral science professor Karl Deisseroth is a pioneer in using a technique called optogenetics, which involves genetically modifying neurons so they make a light-sensitive protein. Those cells can then be turned on or off with laser-based light.
Recently a group from University College London led by neurobiologist Linda Greensmith used optogenetics on paralyzed mice. Her group grafted genetically engineered motor neurons onto severed nerves in mice legs. Shining blue light on them restored nerve connectivity, reversing the paralysis.
DARPA's SUBNETS program (short for Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies) will fund teams of researchers to develop brain interfaces, computational models of brain activity and clinical therapies for illnesses, including depression, chronic pain, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The project is part of the Obama administration's BRAIN Initiative, a collaborative effort between government agencies and industry to revolutionize understanding of the human brain.
"The neurotechnologies we will work to develop under SUBNETS could give new tools to the medical community to treat patients who don't respond to other therapies, and new knowledge to the neuroscience community to expand the understanding of brain function," Justin Sanchez, the DARPA program manager for SUBNETS, said in a statement. [Humanoid Robots to Flying Cars: 10 Coolest DARPA Projects]
In health and disease, brain activity is not confined to distinct parts of the brain, but rather, is distributed over different neural systems. The brain is also very plastic — it can adapt its anatomy and physiology over time. The SUBNETS program will take advantage of these brain characteristics to develop treatments, inspired by deep-brain stimulation, for neural illnesses that aim to restore normal brain function, program officials said.
"Real-time, closed-loop neural interfaces allow us to move beyond the traditional static view of the brain and into a realm of precision therapy," Sanchez said.
The program will fund two research teams, one at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and the other at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), in Boston.
The UCSF team aims to develop an implanted device that targets brain regions involved in an individual's psychiatric or neurological disease. The device would record signals from, and stimulate, neurons in these regions, in order to rehabilitate the malfunctioning brain circuitry. If the approach is successful, the device could ultimately be removed after treatment, DARPA officials said.
The team at MGH will work to identify common components of neurological or psychiatric illnesses, such as increased anxiety, impaired memory or inappropriate reactions to things in the environment. The team will use behavioral testing as well as detailed recordings of individual neurons to discover these common features. The researchers will then work with Draper Laboratories, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop a high-tech, implantable brain device that is safe and effective throughout a person's life.
DARPA hopes these studies will lead to more accurate diagnoses and more targeted treatments of psychiatric disorders.
The SUBNETS program aims to support research over the next five years and will establish a schedule of technology milestones, resulting in the submission of medical devices for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
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