Traumatic stress has produced a host of devastating effects for many military personnel, including mental illness, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, and suicide. Since September 11, 2001, more than 30,000 active duty members and veterans have taken their own lives — a tragic toll four times the number killed in post-911 military operations.1 Developing effective approaches to prevent 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 increase well-being and mitigate the effects of traumatic stress leading to behavioral and prevent or reduce suicidality. The program aims to achieve this by improving cognitive flexibility (CF) and emotional regulation (ER), important health mechanisms that act as protective buffers against traumatic stress. CF 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 to start, stop, or otherwise modulate 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, resulting in the cognitive rigidity and emotional dysregulation associated with mental illness, substance abuse, and suicidality,” says Dr. Greg Witkop, a former Army surgeon, who manages the STRENGTHEN program in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. . “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. By identifying and optimizing the brain networks associated with cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation, STRENGTHEN aims to heal and prevent changes in the brain networks caused by traumatic stress.”
STRENGTHEN will aim to improve the mental protection mechanisms of CF and ER through two goals: (1) development of individualized brain network models of CF and ER and (2) design of hybrid interventions to induce neuroplastic change in functional connectivity and/or structure of CF and ER brain networks to optimize an individual’s CF and ER.
The STRENGTHEN program partners with the Department of Defense’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress (CSTS) at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland. The DARPA-CSTS partnership will leverage the substantial literature and scientific expertise in ER and CF to advance the nascent effort to link them in neurocognitive models. The joint effort leverages the National Institute of Mental Health’s Research Domain Criteria research framework and will seek to develop the first set of interventions to both prevent and treat the psychological impact of traumatic stress – often referred to as Invisible Wounds of War. and promote psychological health.
A STRENGTHEN Day of petitioners for interested applicants is scheduled for November 18, 2022. DARPA posted the REINFORCE the announcement of a broad agency at SAM.gov, which provides full program details.