DARPA Seeks Novel Approaches to Improve Mental Health, Prevent Suicide

Traumatic stress has caused a number of devastating effects for many military service members, including mental illness, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, and suicide. More than 30,000 active-duty soldiers and veterans have taken their own lives since September 11, 2001 – a tragic number representing four times the death toll in post-911 military operations.one Developing effective approaches to preventing suicide is a top priority within the Department of Defense.

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 improve well-being and prevent or alleviate the effects of traumatic stress that leads to behavioral health disorders and suicide. The program seeks to achieve this by improving cognitive flexibility (CF) and emotional regulation (ER), which are key behavioral health mechanisms that act as a protective buffer against traumatic stress. CF refers to the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts based on the context of a situation. ER is a conscious or unconscious strategy for starting, stopping, or otherwise changing the trajectory of an emotion. STRENGTHEN will seek to identify, modulate and ultimately optimize the brain circuits responsible for CF and ER.

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A former Army surgeon who led the STRENGTHEN program at DARPA’s Office of Defense Sciences, Dr. “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,” said Greg Witkop. . “Current mental health intervention approaches rely on diagnostic categories based on descriptive symptoms, rather than a mechanistic understanding of the brain network dysfunction that causes these symptoms. STRENGTHEN aims to improve and optimize changes in brain networks caused by traumatic stress by identifying and optimizing brain networks associated with cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation. aims to prevent it.”

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STRENGTHEN will seek to improve the mental protective mechanisms of CF and ER through two goals: (1) the development of individualized brain network models of CF and ER, and (2) the design of hybrid interventions to trigger neuroplastic change in functional connectivity and/or structure. of CF and ER brain networks to optimize the ER.

The STRENGTHEN program collaborates with the Department of Defense’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS) at the University of Uniformed Services in Bethesda, Maryland. The DARPA-CSTS partnership will use the substantial literature and scientific expertise in the ER and CF field to spur the emerging effort to link them in neurocognitive models. The collaborative effort uses the National Institute of Mental Health’s Research Field Criteria research framework and will seek to develop a first response package to both prevent and treat the psychological impact of traumatic stress, often referred to as Invisible War Wounds, and to support psychological health. .

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For interested bidders, STRENGTHEN Bidders Day is scheduled for November 18, 2022. DARPA has released the STRENGTHEN Broad Agency Announcement on SAM.gov providing full program details.

Read more at DARPA


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