DARPA’s ‘Targeted Neuroplasticity Training’ program aims to accelerate learning ‘beyond normal levels’

The transhumanism-inspired goal: train superspy agents to rapidly master foreign languages and cryptography
March 23, 2016

New DARPA “TNT” technology will be designed to safely and precisely modulate peripheral nerves to control synaptic plasticity during cognitive skill training. (No mention of NZT.) (credit: DARPA)

DARPA has announced a new program called Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) aimed at exploring how to use peripheral nerve stimulation and other methods to enhance learning.

DARPA already has research programs underway to use targeted stimulation of the peripheral nervous system as a substitute for drugs to treat diseases and accelerate healing*, to control advanced prosthetic limbs**, and to restore tactile sensation.

But now DARPA plans to to take an even more ambitious step: It aims to enlist the body’s peripheral nerves to achieve something that has long been considered the brain’s domain alone: facilitating learning — specifically, training in a wide range of cognitive skills.

The goal is to reduce the cost and duration of the Defense Department’s extensive training regimen, while improving outcomes. If successful, TNT could accelerate learning and reduce the time needed to train foreign language specialists, intelligence analysts, cryptographers, and others.

“Many of these skills, such as understanding and speaking a new foreign language, can be challenging to learn,” says the DARPA statement. “Current training programs are time consuming, require intensive study, and usually require evidence of a more-than-minimal aptitude for eligibility. Thus, improving cognitive skill learning in healthy adults is of great interest to our national security.”

Going beyond normal levels of learning

The program is also notable because it will not just train; it will advance capabilities beyond normal levels — a transhumanist approach.

“Recent research has shown that stimulation of certain peripheral nerves, easily and painlessly achieved through the skin, can activate regions of the brain involved with learning,” by releasing neurochemicals in the brain that reorganize neural connections in response to specific experiences, explained TNT Program Manager Doug Weber,

“This natural process of synaptic plasticity is pivotal for learning, but much is unknown about the physiological mechanisms that link peripheral nerve stimulation to improved plasticity and learning,” Weber said. “You can think of peripheral nerve stimulation as a way to reopen the so-called ‘Critical Period’ when the brain is more facile and adaptive. TNT technology will be designed to safely and precisely modulate peripheral nerves to control plasticity at optimal points in the learning process.”

The goal is to optimize training protocols that expedite the pace of learning and maximize long-term retention of even the most complicated cognitive skills. DARPA intends to take a layered approach to exploring this new terrain:

  • Fundamental research will focus on gaining a clearer and more complete understanding of how nerve stimulation influences synaptic plasticity, how cognitive skill learning processes are regulated in the brain, and how to boost these processes to safely accelerate skill acquisition while avoiding potential side effects.
  • The engineering side of the program will target development of a non-invasive device that delivers peripheral nerve stimulation to enhance plasticity in brain regions responsible for cognitive functions.

Proposers Day

TNT expects to attract multidisciplinary teams spanning backgrounds such as cognitive neuroscience, neural plasticity, electrophysiology, systems neurophysiology, biomedical engineering, human performance, and computational modeling.

To familiarize potential participants with the technical objectives of TNT, DARPA will host a Proposers Day on Friday, April 8, 2016, at the Westin Arlington Gateway in Arlington, Va. (registration closes on Thursday, March 31, 2016). A DARPA Special Notice announces the Proposers Day and describes the specific capabilities sought. A Broad Agency Announcement with full technical details on TNT will be forthcoming. For more information, please email DARPA-SN-16-20@darpa.mil.

* DARPA’s ElectRx program is looking for “demonstrations of feedback-controlled neuromodulation strategies to establish healthy physiological states,” along with “disruptive biological-interface technologies required to monitor biomarkers and peripheral nerve activity … [and] deliver therapeutic signals to peripheral nerve targets, using in vivo, real-time biosensors and novel neural interfaces using optical, acoustic, electromagnetic, or engineered biology strategies to achieve precise targeting with potentially single-axon resolution.”

** DARPA’s HAPTIX (Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces) program “seeks to create a prosthetic hand system that moves and provides sensation like a natural hand. … HAPTIX technologies aim to tap in to the motor and sensory signals of the arm, allowing users to control and sense the prosthesis via the same neural signaling pathways used for intact hands and arms. … The system will include electrodes for measuring prosthesis control signals from muscles and motor nerves, and sensory feedback will be delivered through electrodes placed in sensory nerves.”