Read More: Gizmodo
If the brain is just a bunch of wires and circuits, it stands to reason that those components can simply be re-wired in order to create a better, smarter us. At least, that’s the theory behind a new project from the military’s secretive DARPA research branch announced on Wednesday, which aims to enhance human cognitive ability by activating what’s known as “synaptic plasticity.” Recent research has suggested that stimulating certain peripheral nerves—those that relay signals between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body—can enhance a person’s ability to learn, by triggering the release of neurochemicals that reorganize connections in the brain. Through its new Targeted Neuroplasticity Training program, DARPA is is funding eight different research efforts that seek to enhance learning by targeting those nerves with electrical stimulation. The end goal is to translate those findings into real-world applications that boost military training regimens—allowing a soldier, to say, soak up a new language in months instead of years. Should DARPA figure out a way to do that, its efforts will likely go on to impact all of us. “TNT aims to deliver new knowledge of the neural processes that regulate cognitive functions associated with learning,” Doug Weber, the program’s manager, told Gizmodo. In other words, DARPA wants to study the basic biology at work here, and eventually, design neurostimulation devices that exploit our biological wiring to enhance learning. One DARPA-funded team, at Johns Hopkins University, will focus on speech and hearing. These researchers will be experimenting with vagal nerve stimulation, exploring whether this can accelerate learning a new language. Another team at the University of Florida will study how vagal nerve stimulation impacts perception, executive function, decision-making, and spatial navigation in rodents. Yet another at Arizona State University will stimulate the trigeminal nerve, and study how that impacts visual, sensory and motor functions of military volunteers studying intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, marksmanship and decision-making.