Why's the Pentagon Backing Brain Research Straight out of Science Fiction?

Hold on to your seats, because we may actually have found the place where humans stop being humans and start being droids. Or semi-droids. This new research, part of the White House BRAIN Initiative, is pioneering electrode brain implants for memory-compromised individuals in order to help them regain brain function or at least slow their decline, and it reminds us of something right out of Hollywood. Soon, people with Parkinson’s may be able to push a button to help them remember the grocery list. It’s dazzling, but it also makes you wonder about what might be coming next.

Last week, the University of Pennsylvania announced a four-year, $22.5 million project to develop negt-generation therapies like these to restore memory function lost during traumatic injury or to disease. And the most interesting thing, to us, is not this project’s unmistakable Hollywood air, but that it’s funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Y’know, the organization convened after Sputnik served us a hearty dose of humble pie, proving we were significantly outgunned in the arena of military technology? Yeah, that. They’ve been behind the stealth fighter, the M-16 assault rifle, and even (gulp) the Internet. Now, they’re pioneering this, under the auspices of their Restoring Active Memory program?

It kinda makes us wonder if DARPA might have other, higher goals than just helping a veteran with PTSD overcome brain trauma. The end goal is, after all, the creation of “a fully implantable neural monitoring and stimulation system to be used in the treatment of memory loss.” Take off that last part, and the project could have wider applications, like making soldiers more or less programmable. Not a bad thing, really, if a life could be saved as a result. Or watching the brain circuits light up as a pilot or a ship captain makes decisions about navigation or when to drop the landing gear.

In many realms, the grantmaking undertaken by government agencies is lower-risk than what comes from the private sector. But this is not one of those situations. DARPA prides itself on the high-risk projects it takes on, and this is no exception. In this case, we’ll be looking to Restoring Active Memory and this project to lead the way into this realm of neurological research and development.