DARPA Wants To Activate Drugs in Human Brains With Near-Infrared Lights

24 Jun 2024

DARPA is putting together a research program to shine near-infrared light into people’s brains that if successful, would be able to activate and deactivate drugs in their bodies on demand.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put out a special notice for its Alert WARfighter Enablement (AWARE) program, which aims to help increase alertness following sleep loss in humans.

“The AWARE program aims to develop a combination drug and device to non-invasively increase alertness following sleep loss in humans, without negative side effects such as anxiety, irritability, or euphoria, and with reduced addictive potential”

DARPA AWARE Program Special Notice

American soldiers are often prescribed dextroamphetamine as a stimulant to help keep them alert following sleep deprivation, but the drug can cause anxiety, irritability, or euphoria, the latter of which can lead to addiction.

To counter this, DARPA is looking for a way to give soldiers a “photoswitchable” version of dextroamphetamine that remains inactive in the body until activated by the presence of near-infrared (NIR) light:

While active, the new photoswitchable drug behaves in the same manner as regular (i.e., non-photoswitchable) dextroamphetamine.”

Theoretically, the drug could be switched on or off with a flick of a NIR light shot into the head “to facilitate on-demand de-transition from alertness and make restorative sleep possible.”

According to DARPA, “Temporal arrangement of NIR light pulses may be used to titrate the dose of activated drug over time, which can further reduce the potential for addiction and other undesirable effects.”

“The AWARE technology will be developed with temporal selectivity, enabling reversible activation of the drug precisely when needed”

DARPA AWARE Program Special Notice

The DARPA special notice describes the process as such:

“Through non-invasive delivery of NIR light to specific area(s) of the brain, the combination of photoswitchable drug and a NIR-emitting light will selectively activate regions of the prefrontal cortex responsible for executive function, working memory, and decision making, while avoiding deep brain structures such as the amygdala and striatum, which have been implicated in mood alterations and euphoria, respectively.”

Leading the AWARE program, should it become a fully-funded research project, will be Dr. Pedro Irazoqui, who, according to his bio, “joined DARPA in January 2024 as a program manager in the Biological Technologies Office. His research seeks to address the need for a more capable fighting force in extreme environments.”

As a full professor at Johns Hopkins University, Irazoqui’s “research is focused on the development of wearable and implantable wireless medical devices for treating diverse neural pathologies with a particular focus on epilepsy.”

The temporal selectivity of switching the drug from an active to inactive state is anticipated to facilitate on-demand de-transition from alertness and make restorative sleep possible

DARPA AWARE Program Special Notice

Last month, Neuroscience News highlighted a study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital showing how near-infrared light could help with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, depression, and possibly even autism.

According to the Neuroscience News report:

Low-level light therapy aids brain healing in patients with moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI). Using a helmet that emits near-infrared light, researchers observed increased brain connectivity within two weeks of treatment.”

And according to a 2022 study in Frontiers in Pharmacology, near-infrared light “can penetrate transcranially the physical barriers of the skin and skull and reach the brain parenchyma if an optical window is used between 650 nm and 1,200 nm without excessive heat generation. Biomedical reports demonstrate the ability of NIR light to stimulate biochemical processes that maintain a healthy brain state and can be beneficial in acute and chronic pathologic brain conditions.”

The DARPA AWARE program is anticipated to comprise three phases over 36 months.

Tim Hinchliffe, Editor, The Sociable