A team led by UCSF neuroscientists has won federal funding to build an implantable brain device that would record and analyze live electrical signals, then alter them to retrain the brain to recover from mental illnesses like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The funding, announced Monday night, comes from a U.S. Department of Defense agency that is focused on improving understanding of brain disorders, including illnesses that often affect service members and veterans, and developing new engineering-based treatments.
The UCSF team - which includes scientists from UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Cornell and New York universities - will receive up to $26 million for the project. The funding is part of $100 million set aside by President Obama for his national Brain Initiative announced in April 2013.
"Our understanding of the brain is very incomplete. We need to move much faster to get to a much higher level of sophisticated understanding," said Dr. Edward Chang, a neurosurgeon who is leading the UCSF team. "We're taking a big leap forward with this project. How do you build an intelligent device that interacts with the brain? That's never been worked out before."
A second team led by neuroscientists from Massachusetts General Hospital also received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The teams will receive the grant money in stages over five years as they meet certain targets along the way.
Both groups are part of the agency's Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies program, which previously has supported projects using brain devices to improve memory and the functionality of prosthetic arms.
The UCSF group is charged with developing a neuro-prosthetic device that would allow scientists for the first time to record electrical activity from multiple parts of the brain simultaneously and at a very fine resolution. Currently, technology doesn't exist to record that much information, or to process it in a way that is meaningful to scientists.
A recording device alone would be profoundly useful toward improving understanding of how the brain operates on a network level - like building a "Hubble telescope" for studying the brain, said Dr. Vikaas Sohal, a UCSF psychiatrist who's part of the brain device team.
"We build these devices and are able to see something no one has ever seen before," Sohal said. "By doing that, we're almost guaranteed to discover something new and important."
For neuropsychiatric disorders like depression, scientists have a fair understanding of what parts of the brain are affected by illness, Sohal said. In patients with depression, for example, advanced imaging equipment has shown which areas are over-activated and which ones are under-activated. But doctors don't know how those regions are communicating, or what they're saying.
"It's like a TV show where all you have are snapshots. We know who the actors are, but we don't know what they're saying to each other, and we don't know who the villains are or who the heroes are," Sohal said. "That's very analogous to where we are right now with the brain."
What is known
Decades of research have uncovered biological mechanisms behind mental illnesses, such as the role of hormones or genetic factors, and doctors have become competent at describing and diagnosing conditions by their symptoms.
But treatments, even as they've improved dramatically in recent decades, are imprecise and not always effective, neuroscientists say. Drugs can improve symptoms, but they often come with troublesome side effects. Therapy can help many patients, but it's expensive and can take years. And roughly 10 to 20 percent of patients get little or no benefit from drugs or therapy.
Plus, the treatments, even when they work well, aren't cures.
The brain device that the UCSF team hopes to develop would be designed to retrain the brain - teaching it to "unlearn" electrical activity that causes problems, Chang said. The idea is to build a device that would record signals and find patterns associated with mental illness, and then emit new signals to permanently alter those patterns.
"We're not interested in creating people who are dependent on these devices," Chang said. "What we're talking about is retraining the brain circuits, so you're getting at the core of the problem."
Such a device would have to be far more powerful than anything that exists today. It will need to be capable of recording and processing vast quantities of data, and separating the data that matters from the "white noise" of activity that is humming around the brain.
Doctors now use a technique called deep brain stimulation to record activity from one region of the brain, then manually shoot new electrical signals to that same region. They are able to improve symptoms of some neurological conditions like Parkinson's disease and epilepsy with the devices, but they haven't worked well on patients with mental illnesses.
Still, deep brain stimulation proves that scientists are able to interact with the brain and effect change. It suggests a more advanced device isn't just a fantasy, said Jose Carmena, co-director, with Chang, of the Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses at UC Berkeley and UCSF.
"It's an extremely ambitious project. It's a man-on-the-moon kind of project," said Carmena, one of several UC Berkeley scientists who will work on the device. "But deep brain stimulation has been happening more than a decade now. We just need to make it better."
Erin Allday is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org