Image: Warner Brothers

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.

Already, there are plenty of products on the market that claim to offer cognitive, psychological, and physical performance enhancement. (Basketball’s Golden State Warrior’s, for one, are known to rely on brain-zapping for a purported edge in their game.) But there is little understanding of how these devices work—and many scientists suspect they don’t. The aim of the 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.

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“We are starting with a bit of knowledge about how the peripheral nerves are wired, but relatively little knowledge about the effects of neurostimulation on their function,” Weber said.

If, it turns out, there is a sufficient link between neurostimulation and improvements in learning, the second phase of the program will work to design devices that enhance training in foreign language learning, image analysis, and spatial navigation tasks.

“Most computer analogies for the brain idea are bad,” said Michael Kilgard, the lead researcher on the University of Texas at Dallas project. “But there really are wires from point A to point B. When you cut those wires you lose function. But after they’re cut they can make new connections. We have technologies now that allow us to see those connections.”

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Kilgard’s work has, until recently, focused on repairing damaged circuits. Areas of research like deep brain stimulation (which involves implanting a chip deep in the brain) and transcranial direct stimulation (which changes brain chemistry using non-invasive electrical stimulation) have seen some success in using electricity to correct faulty wiring to, say, help treat mental health conditions. Kilgard has had success using targeted plasticity therapy to treat PTSD.

“Our idea was, after brain injury how do you get better? What you really need is to rewire circuits,” he said. “This is the next logical step. If you can help recover function you’ve lost, can you increase the rate at which you learn new things?”

Eventually, he envisions a device that, for a few hundred bucks, will non-invasively allow anyone to pick up a language at an accelerated pace. Under the current grant, he hopes to in five years have a (likely much more expensive) version of that device ready for FDA approval.

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But there are plenty of hurdles. For one, that any of this will even work is still little more than an educated guess.

“We are leveraging state-of-art tools for probing the molecular and cellular processes underlying these functions, but even the most advanced instrumentation is limited,” said Weber.

What’s more, the very premise of the research is likely to stoke fears that DARPA is creating a race of cognitively enhanced super soldiers. The agency has several other brain projects in the works, which seek to use implanted chips to treat mental illness as well as to restore memories and movement to battle-wounded soldiers. For now, the aim of the program is to just give our brain’s a little boost—allowing us to learn a new skill maybe, say, 30% faster than we would naturally. But even the use of brain stimulants like Ritalin or Modafinil readily available on today’s college campuses is controversial.

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Critics argue that such enhancement defies human nature. Supporters say that seeking out enhancement is human nature. The new research makes this debate, on how far we as a society are willing to take human cognitive enhancement, all the more urgent.

“Issues related to safety, equal access to the technology, and freedom of choice are often the earliest topics considered when new, breakthrough technologies are created,” Weber said. “It’s important that we carefully consider the broader impact of this work.”