Traumatic stress has caused a host of devastating consequences for many military service members, including mental illness, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, and suicide. Since September 11, 2001, more than 30,000 active-duty service members and veterans have taken their own lives—a tragic toll that represents four times the number of those killed in post-911 military operations.1 The development of effective approaches to prevent suicide is a top priority within the Department of Defence.
DARPA’s STRENGTHEN program, short for Strengthening Resilient Emotions and Nimble Cognition Through Engineering Neuroplasticity, aims to build on recent advances in neuroscience and clinical practice to increase well-being and reduce the effects of traumatic stress that lead to behavioral health disorders and suicide prevent or mitigate. The program seeks to achieve this by improving cognitive flexibility (CF) and emotional regulation (ER), key behavioral health mechanisms that act as protective buffers against traumatic stress. CF refers to the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts according to the context of a situation. ER is a conscious or unconscious strategy to start, stop, or otherwise modulate the trajectory of an emotion. VERSTERK will attempt to identify, modulate and ultimately optimize the brain circuits responsible for CF and ER.
“Trauma and stress alter the function of brain networks, leading to the cognitive rigidity and emotional dysregulation associated with mental illness, substance abuse and suicide,” says Dr. Greg Witkop, a former Army surgeon, who manages the VERSTERK program in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “Current mental health intervention approaches rely on diagnostic categories based on descriptive symptoms rather than a mechanistic understanding of brain network dysfunction that causes those symptoms. By identifying and optimizing the brain networks associated with cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation, VERSTERK aims to change brain networks to heal and prevent what is caused by traumatic stress.”
VERSTERK will aim to improve the mental protective mechanisms of CF and ER through two objectives: (1) Development of individualized brain network models of CF and ER and (2) design of hybrid interventions to induce neuroplastic change in the functional connectivity and/or structure cause. of CF and ER brain networks to optimize an individual’s CF and ER.
The STRENGTHEN program works with the Department of Defense’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS) at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. The DARPA-CSTS partnership will leverage the substantial literature and scientific expertise in the field of ER and CF to advance the emerging effort to link them into neurocognitive models. The joint effort uses the National Institute of Mental Health’s Research Domain Criteria research framework and will seek to develop the first series of interventions to both prevent and treat the psychological impact of traumatic stress – often referred to as Invisible Wounds of War – and to promote psychological health.
A STRENGTHENED Proposers Day for interested proposers is scheduled for November 18, 2022. DARPA has posted the STRENGTHENED Agency-wide announcement on SAM.gov, which provides complete program details.
Read more at DARPA