Targeted Neuroplasticity Training For 'Downloading Skills'
Is it possible to learn cognitive skills faster? Is there a royal road to being a language specialist, intelligence analyst or cryptographer?
There are people in the government who think so, and you'd better believe they add to the list of DARPA projects. It's called TNT.
Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) seeks to advance the pace and effectiveness of a specific kind of learning—cognitive skills training—through the precise activation of peripheral nerves that can in turn promote and strengthen neuronal connections in the brain. TNT will pursue development of a platform technology to enhance learning of a wide range of cognitive skills, with a goal of reducing 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.
The TNT program seeks to use peripheral nerve stimulation to speed up learning processes in the brain by boosting release of brain chemicals, such as acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These so-called neuromodulators play a role in regulating synaptic plasticity, the process by which connections between neurons change to improve brain function during learning. By combining peripheral neurostimulation with conventional training practices, the TNT program seeks to leverage endogenous neural circuitry to enhance learning by facilitating tuning of neural networks responsible for cognitive functions.
DARPA is taking 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 concentrate on developing non-invasive methods to deliver peripheral nerve stimulation that enhances plasticity in brain regions responsible for cognitive functions. The goal is to optimize training and stimulation protocols that expedite the rate of learning and maximize long-term retention of cognitive skills.
A more recent communication from DARPA discussed the goals of the four-year program:
DARPA’s TNT efforts differ from the Agency’s previous neuroscience and neurotechnology endeavors by seeking not to restore lost function but to advance capabilities in healthy individuals. By the end of the planned four-year program, DARPA aims to demonstrate that TNT methods and technologies can yield at least a 30 percent improvement in learning rate and/or skill performance over traditional training regimens, with minimal negative side effects.
“The Defense Department operates in a complex, interconnected world in which human skills such as communication and analysis are vital, and the Department has long pushed the frontiers of training to maximize those skills,” Weber said. “DARPA’s goal with TNT is to further enhance the most effective existing training methods so the men and women of our Armed Forces can operate at their full potential.”
Recognizing that these new technologies for learning and training could raise social and ethical issues, the TNT program is funding Arizona State University to host a national ethics workshop within the first year of the program. The workshop will engage scientists, bioethicists, regulators, military specialists, and others in discussion of those issues, and will produce for wider consideration a report on potential ethical issues relating to cognitive enhancement for warfighters.