New Biological Technologies Will Grant Troops Super Powers
Tomorrow’s troops may look more like the superheroes from the Avengers comic books than G.I. Joes. As medical and biotechnology advances, the military’s research organizations are putting more emphasis on creating super soldiers with improved performance, strength and the ability to better survive serious injury.
Everything from Wolverine’s self-healing powers to Iron Man’s suit is within the realm of possibility.
Leading the charge is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which launched its biological technologies office in April. One goal is “cultivating new discoveries that help maintain peak warfighter abilities and restoring those abilities as quickly and fully as possible when they are degraded,” a DARPA news release stated.
Programs include high-tech, robotic prosthetics and a device that can be implanted in a soldier’s brain to help restore memories lost after an injury. DARPA is also developing a putty-like material that can be packed in and around compound fractures, allowing doctors to eschew setting the injury with plates, rods and screws. The putty would harden to a bone-like structure, enabling normal, load-bearing use of the limb within days.
One of the agency’s newest initiatives, the ElectRx program announced this August, aims to develop tiny robots that could be injected into a soldier’s body, conferring self-healing powers.
“Instead of relying only on medication, we envision a closed-loop system that would work in concept like a tiny, intelligent pacemaker,” Doug Weber, ElectRx program manager, stated in a release. “It would continually assess conditions and provide stimulus patterns tailored to help maintain healthy organ function, helping patients get healthy and stay healthy using their body’s own systems.”
The peripheral nervous system regularly monitors the body’s internal organs, but when a person is injured or sick, it can exacerbate negative symptoms like pain, inflammation or a weakened immune system, the release stated. DARPA wants to create miniscule implants that can regulate nerve signals, helping the body to heal more quickly.
Under the Warrior Web program, DARPA is developing a lightweight, conformal undersuit to help reduce a dismounted soldier’s risk of musculoskeletal injury while carrying more than 100 pounds of gear.
“The added weight while bending, running, squatting, jumping and crawling in a tactical environment increases the risk of musculoskeletal injury, particularly on vulnerable areas such as ankles, knees and lumbar spine,” DARPA information said.
The suit would help keep joints stable during movement and proactively stimulate muscle tissue to relieve stress, stated a broad area announcement for the program released last year. And if a soldier tries to do a maneuver that would cause injury to the joints, the suit could even generate an opposing force to support them.
It could also enhance performance, increasing a human’s speed, strength and lifting capacity as well as improving marksmanship, the BAA stated.
Another goal of the program is to develop wearable technologies that could speed up rehabilitation after an injury or augment the strength of troops who have muscle deterioration, it said.
Other defense agencies are interested in biotechnologies that can help boost troop performance. The Army Research Laboratory is using the latest neuroscience techniques to measure brain states, with the goal of improving functions such as comprehension, target detection or decision making, said Jean Vettel, an ARL neuroscientist.
Vettel believes that by 2030, troops will wear sensors embedded in their helmets and clothing that measures brain signals and vital signs. As a soldier walks down the street, his eyes peeled for a suspected terrorist involved in a bombing, those sensors would capture the moments when suspicious behaviors are observed.
Whenever an alarm bell rings in a soldier’s mind, analytic software linked to the sensors would discern the similarities among suspicious individuals and create an algorithm that could be applied to footage from Army surveillance cameras around the city, Vettel said.
The soldier’s heightened physiological signals could then be used to datamine video footage, narrowing down potential suspects. When a possible match is found, images and location information would be sent to the soldier’s smartphone.
The same brain-monitoring technology could also be used to alert pilots that their attention is drifting or create individualized training curriculums that adapt to a student’s comprehension level, she said.
Scientists are still figuring out just how to get this kind of technology out of the laboratory and into the battlefield, Vettel said. Technology has matured enough so that sensors can detect, with about 90 percent accuracy, the changes that happen in the brain when a person has located a target — but only if the subject is sitting in a controlled environment.
Another challenge for researchers is understanding exactly what parts of the brain are linked to a particular mental, physical and emotional state, she said.
“A single neuron may not have enough information about what the brain is doing to tell you anything useful. So you may need to look at a group of neurons, but the question is, what size group of neurons?” she asked. “Maybe it’s interaction among neurons.”
Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, meanwhile, is studying wound-healing technologies. One project in the works aims to develop a synthetic blood substitute that could be injected into a soldier’s bloodstream, said Col. Todd Rasmussen, the command’s director of the combat casualty care research program. The medicine mimics the properties of hemoglobin — the main component of a red blood cell — and would reduce the need for medics to delve into their precious supply of blood.
“These are things that are more in the test tubes and rats and mice at this point,” he said. “We are working to make sure the synthetic hemoglobins are compatible with living tissue.”
The command is also studying how to use biomarkers in a person’s blood — such as certain proteins or particles of damaged cells — to predict traumatic brain injury, he said.
“We’re doing human testing,” he said. “We know these markers exist. … [We are] learning how to draw the blood and how to get them from humans.”
Other military scientists are also researching how biomarkers could predict infection or the ability of a wound to heal properly, he said.
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