TEHRAN, April 28, YJC - The brain is often compared to a computer, a thrumming mass of circuitry, software and wires. If that's the case, it's surely possible to rewire it - to ensure mankind's onboard central processing unit is the best it can be.
TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) -
That's the theory behind the latest project from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US military's shadowy research branch. It aims to enhance human cognitive abilities by activating "synaptic plasticity" — under the banner of Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT).
The idea was inspired by recent research, suggesting the stimulation of peripheral nerves, which relay signals between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body, enhance an individual's ability to learn, via triggering the release of neurochemicals that reorganize connections in the brain.
Under the auspices of the project, DARPA is funding eight separate projects targeting those nerves with electrical stimulation, the ultimate objective being to translate those findings into real-world applications that boost military training regimens.
For example, allowing a soldier to learn a new skill (such as a foreign language) in weeks rather than years. If successful, such an innovation would have a huge impact on the armed forces — and the wider world.
One team, at Johns Hopkins University, will focus on speech and hearing, another at the University of Florida perception, executive function, decision-making, and spatial navigation in rodents, another at Arizona State University visual, sensory and motor functions.
There are already a number of products on the market offering cognitive, psychological, and physical performance enhancement — although whether that offer is genuine is debatable. Nonetheless, there are real world examples of "brain zapping" technology being used in certain spheres — US basketball team Golden State Warriors claim it gives their players the edge in training. In November 2016, US military scientists claimed to have artificially enhanced cognitive skills in staff using electrical brain stimulators, Sputnik reported.
Still, it is not entirely understood how these devices work, if they actually do — DARPA program is to settle this debate, testing the efficacy of both implanted and non-invasive devices to understand not only whether they actually work, but if so, how. If there is indeed a link between neurostimulation and improved learning capabilities, the program will enter its second phase, and design devices that enhance training in foreign language learning, image analysis, and spatial navigation tasks.
The University teams involved have hitherto focused on repairing damaged brain circuits, and using targeted plasticity therapy to treat afflictions such as PTSD.
The big question now is whether their experience in recovering lost or deteriorated functions can translate into facilitating the addition of new functions and abilities.