Team Wins DARPA Grant to Explore Potential Treatment for PTSD

Dr. Michael Kilgard

Dr. Michael Kilgard

A federal agency has awarded a four-year grant that could result in funding of up to $6.4 million to the Texas Biomedical Device Center at UT Dallas to study a potential new therapy for individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant began Sept. 15 and will continue for four years. The grant is part of DARPA’s ElectRx program, which aims to develop groundbreaking technologies that would use the body’s innate neurophysiology to restore and maintain health.

The UT Dallas project will explore a PTSD treatment that uses targeted plasticity therapy. Targeted plasticity therapy uses vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) during exposure therapy to reduce the fear response. 

VNS is an FDA-approved method for treating various illnesses, such as depression and epilepsy. It involves sending a mild electric pulse through the vagus nerve, which is in the neck, and relays information about the state of the body to the brain. 

UT Dallas researchers have already demonstrated the safety and potential efficacy of targeted plasticity therapy as potential treatments for stroke patients and individuals suffering from tinnitus, which is constant ringing in the ears. Those treatments are in trial and review. 

“We have translated two previous UTD therapies to the clinic. This could be the third,” said Dr. Michael Kilgard, professor of neuroscience and one of the principal investigators on the project. “Those were developed entirely here at UTD and have made it to patients. That’s the eventual goal with this project.” 

PTSD is a condition in which individuals feel anxiety and panic when reminded of a traumatic event.

According to the National Center for PTSD, approximately 7 percent to 8 percent of the U.S. population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. 

Dr. Robert Rennaker

Dr. Robert Rennaker

“Our therapy reduces anxiety,” said Kilgard, who is the Margaret Fonde Jonsson Professor. “If we can reduce the anxiety and remind those suffering with PTSD that they successfully overcame their fears, they can make progress and get out of the hole.” 

The DARPA grant will provide support for research at nine labs at UT Dallas and a team of about 30 researchers, including professors, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, engineers and staff. 

“This grant is huge,” said Dr. Christa McIntyre, associate professor and program head for neuroscience. “It’s bringing together faculty from a number of areas — people from bioengineering, neuroscience and biology. It’s really exciting to work across specialties with people on a project that is so important.” 

A primary focus of the project is to improve PTSD modeling, which will help boost the effectiveness of targeted plasticity therapy. 

“The current preclinical models of fear are poor models for PTSD,” said Dr. Robert Rennaker, Texas Instruments Distinguished Chair in Bioengineering, director of the Texas Biomedical Device Center and chairman of the Department of Bioengineering. “This grant includes a new preclinical model so we can better understand the mechanisms behind PTSD before moving it to clinical trials.” 

The DARPA grant is part of the large BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) that was launched by the U.S. government in 2013. 

Research for the initiative is primarily funded by grants from five federal agencies: DARPA, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, and Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. 

DARPA’s mission is to prevent and create strategic surprise by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military. The agency sponsors revolutionary, high-payoff research bridging the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use. 

Faculty members from two UT Dallas schools will be funded by the grant. They are: Kilgard and McIntyre from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences; Rennaker, Dr. Seth Hays,  Dr. Mario Romero-Ortega, Dr. Walter Voit, Dr. David Schmidtke, Dr. Stuart Cogan and Dr. Shalini Prasad from the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science

Kilgard said the DARPA grant will help provide a clinical application, but there also are larger applications that could come from it. 

“The grant is for post-traumatic stress disorder, but it obviously has relevance to learning about memory in general — plasticity, epilepsy, stroke and tinnitus,” he said. “This is preclinical research, and preclinical research leads to cures.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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