DARPA SUBNETS (Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies) Program

In the Science section of today’s Washington Post, an article describes a research program funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  The intent of this program seems wonderful–“to develop brain interfaces, computational models of brain activity and clinical therapies for such illnesses as depression, chronic pain, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.”  The article elaborates that researchers hope “to expand the understanding of brain function” and that these efforts will help to develop new tools for clinicians to use on patients who have not responded to other therapies.  Teams at the University of California at San Francisco and Massachusetts General Hospital will be developing implantable brain devices to treat intractable brain problems.

I applaud the effort to ethically expand our knowledge of the human brain.  However as a neurofeedback practitioner, I have reservations about this program.  EEG neurofeedback when practiced by an experienced clinician has a high efficacy for treating these same conditions without the expense and potential dangers of invasive brain procedures.  I strongly suspect that neurofeedback has not been adequately assessed as as alternative to brain implants.  This may be due to the general ignorance and misconceptions that the medical community harbors towards neurofeedback, or it may be an effort “to do something” to help those who have not responded favorably to the dominant medical treatment model of medications.  As well-meaning as DARPA and its researchers may be, connecting patients to well-trained neurofeedback practitioners for at least a 30-40 session trial of neurofeedback before subjecting them to neurosurgical procedures, may be the more ethical and cost effective way to proceed with patients with symptoms that are refractory to “regular” treatment.

Just yesterday, the Washington Post published an extensive article about medical errors.  One credible researcher estimated that up to 1/2 of all hospital deaths are due to medical errors.  Neurosurgical procedures are quite prone to complications that can lead to permanent disability or death.  I have treated patients who have had complications and bad side effects of neurosurgery with neurofeedback.  None of these patients had been informed that neurofeedback was an alternative therapy to neurosurgery.  Many of these patients felt that they had not been adequately counseled about potential complications or that their surgery could worsen or not affect their problem.  While there are many conditions for which neurosurgery is the best solution,  neurofeedback presents a safe and efficacious alternative for many neurological and mental health issues.  I hope that DARPA and its researchers take great care in offering their experimental treatments to scrupulously screened patients who have been fully informed of treatment alternatives and the potential consequences of their procedures.