Wright State University, in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Vanderbilt University, and Ibis Biosciences, received an award of up to $9.1 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to improve learning using a handheld, low-power electrical stimulator applied to the neck. This technique, known as vagal nerve stimulation, is FDA-approved for the treatment of diseases such as cluster headaches, epilepsy, and depression.
Researchers in the new project, called Learning through Electrical Augmentation of Plasticity, or LEAP, believe vagal nerve stimulation can be used in healthy subjects to stimulate a change in neurons that increases the ability to learn.
LEAP will improve understanding of fundamental molecular mechanisms of nerve stimulation and learning by studying the way genes are expressed, a field known as epigenetics.
The principal investigator for the project is Timothy Broderick, chief science officer at the Wright State Research Institute and associate dean for research affairs at the Boonshoft School of Medicine. “Epigenetics helps explain how vagal nerve stimulation changes the ‘read out’ of genes in the brain. The DNA sequence does not change but with stimulation neurons become more receptive to training,” Broderick said.