Traumatic stress has caused a host of devastating effects for many 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 personnel and veterans have committed suicide – a tragic toll that is four times the number killed in post-9/11 military operations.1 Developing effective approaches to preventing 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 leverage recent advances in neuroscience and clinical practice to increase well-being and prevent or lessen the effects of traumatic stress. leading to behavioral health problems and suicidal behaviors. The program strives to achieve this by improving cognitive flexibility (CF) and emotional regulation (ER), key mechanisms of behavioral health that act as protective buffers against traumatic stress. FC refers to the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts depending on the context of a situation. ER is a conscious or unconscious strategy for starting, stopping, or otherwise modulating the trajectory of an emotion. STRENGTHEN 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, addiction and suicide,” said Dr. Greg Witkop, a former Army surgeon, who manages the STRENGTHEN program within DARPA’s Office of Defense Science. . “Current approaches to mental health intervention rely on diagnostic categories based on descriptive symptoms rather than a mechanistic understanding of the brain network dysfunction underlying these symptoms. By identifying and optimizing brain networks associated with cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation, STRENGTHEN seeks to heal – and prevent – changes in brain networks caused by traumatic stress.
STRENGTHEN will strive to improve the mental protective mechanisms of CF and ED through two objectives: (1) the development of individualized brain network models of CF and ED and (2) the design of hybrid interventions to induce a neuroplastic change in the functional connectivity and/or structure of the CF and ER brain networks to optimize an individual’s CF and ER.
The STRENGTHEN program collaborates with the Center for Traumatic Stress Studies (CSTS) at the Department of Defense at the University of Uniformed Services in Bethesda, Maryland. The DARPA-CSTS partnership will harness the substantial literature and scientific expertise in the field of ER and CF to advance the nascent effort to link them in neurocognitive models. The joint effort uses the National Institute of Mental Health’s Research Domain Criteria research framework and will attempt to develop the first set of interventions to prevent and treat the psychological impact of traumatic stress – often referred to as invisible wounds. of war – and promote psychological health.
A STRENGTHEN Proposer Day for interested Proposers is scheduled for November 18, 2022. DARPA posted the STRENGTHEN Broad agency announcement on SAM.gov, which provides full program details.
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