Neural Engineer Qi Wang Wins DARPA Grant to Speed Up Learning

Stomata, seen here through a microscope, are tiny openings on plant leaves that enable transfer of water vapor, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, and by sap supply to the leaves. Photo by D. Kucharski K. Kucharska/Shutterstock
Qi Wang
—Photo by Jane Nisselson

Recent research has shown that stimulation of certain peripheral nerves can rewire regions of the brain involved with perception and learning by taking advantage of synaptic plasticity. The precise activation of peripheral nerves can trigger the release of a variety of neurotransmitters, which, in turn, can potentially reorganize neural connections in response to specific experiences, such as learning foreign languages. Taking note of these findings, earlier this year the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched its Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) program, an initiative to speed up cognitive learning skills—useful for specialists such as linguists, intelligence analysts and cryptographers—through the use of the body’s peripheral nervous system.

DARPA recently awarded eight TNT grants to seven universities across the U.S. for research that focuses initially on the fundamental science of brain plasticity and will conclude with human trials in healthy volunteers. One of the grants is going to Karim Oweiss, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, biomedical engineering, and neuroscience at the University of Florida (UF), who is working with Qi Wang, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering. Oweiss’ project seeks to demonstrate the effects of vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) on cognitive-skill learning and the brain activity supporting those skills, as well as to optimize the stimulation parameters and training protocols for long-term retention of those skills.

As part of the UF grant, Wang’s Laboratory for Neural Engineering and Control has been awarded $1 million to determine the optimal VNS patterns for facilitating perceptual learning of tactile stimuli. In addition, his team will  investigate the role of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system, which plays an essential rule in modulating our behavioral states, such as attention and arousal, in speeding up learning.

“DARPA’s TNT program has been designed to get us researchers to think out of the box,” Wang says. “With its explicit request to explore noninvasive peripheral nerve stimulation (PENS) to enhance learning in healthy individuals, DARPA is encouraging us to open up an uncharted territory that transcends the modest benefits of PENS in clinical applications such as epilepsy, depression, anxiety, tinnitus, and pain to the much larger domain of consumer and defense applications like learning a new language, breaking codes, or making rapid decisions in a combat zone.”

Wang’s group will use optogenetic tools to manipulate the activity in the LC-NE system during perceptual learning tasks to tease apart the contributions of the neuromodulator to the improved learning rate by periphery nerve stimulation. They will use computational modeling, electrophysiology, as well as optogenetics, in concert with behavioral tasks, to develop new technologies for accelerating learning.

—by Holly Evarts

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