DARPA Wants to Hack Your Nervous System to Turn You Into a Super-Spy

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Imagine mastering instruments, learning to tango and becoming fluent in French — in months, weeks, even days. No, it's not science fiction: A new program by the government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aims to tweak your nervous system to make you learn better and faster.

The goal of the new DARPA program, called Targeted Neuroplasticity Training, is to stimulate your peripheral nervous system, the network of nerves on the outside of your brain and spinal cord, to facilitate the development of cognitive skills. If it works, TNT could become a faster and cheaper way to train people on foreign languages, intelligence analysis, cryptography and more.

Since DARPA is first and foremost a Department of Defense establishment, U.S. military agents could very quickly learn to decode, and understand, covert intelligence information in, say, German or Urdu. Not only that, but they could be able to do it better and faster than current human ability.

"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," Doug Weber, TNT program manager, said in a DARPA press release. "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."

Source: DARPA

According to Weber, the signals TNT's program instigates may release neurochemicals that reopen the "Critical Period" when your brain is best at gaining and retaining information. It's almost like your adult brain could learn like it's still your childhood brain: great at making neural connections.

That is, if scientists can figure out how to make it work. Since the connection between the peripheral nervous system and better learning isn't an exact science yet, the program aims to spend a lot of time figuring out how stimulating nerves in the spine and brain with a non-invasive device will make our synapses more plastic.

A solution to PTSD: This isn't the first time DARPA has wanted to go right to the human brain to make modifications. In June of 2015, Weber called for bioelectric medicines, or tools to directly communicate with and deliver information to the nervous system, to fix disease and stress.

"That would be especially useful for our war fighters who have to deal with very stressful environments," Weber told Mic in June. "PTSD has a sequelae of anxiety disorders that fall from it. So instead of having to take a medication, we could use the body's internal circuitry to regulate stress levels. It would be a game-changer."

Beyond the military: It's obvious why TNT is attractive to the military. But its implications are even bigger than wartime: TNT could also be the greatest foreign-language program in the history of the world. 

With extremely fast learning and a powerful retention rate, traditional education could take half — or a quarter — as long. 

Not only could the agent of the future learn new skills at extremely fast rates, but he or she could deal with the physiological and emotional stress that comes with wartime. DARPA could be on the cusp of figuring out how to make spies that science fiction and espionage-movie directors salivate over.

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Max Plenke

Max Plenke is a staff writer at Mic, where he covers breaking news, climate science, health and the future. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ and Wallpaper. Send story tips to max@mic.com.

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