DARPA plans an MRI equivalent for mental health

Since September 11, 2001, more than 30,000 active duty personnel and veterans have committed suicide – four times more than those killed in post-9/11 military operations.

Current methods for detecting early signs of behavioral and mental health risk factors rely on self-report and screening questionnaires, which cannot reliably predict suicidality. Effective behavioral health assessment is a mission-critical capability requiring new tools to identify and assist those at risk.

DARPA announced the Neural Evidence Aggregation Tool (NEAT) program. NEAT aims to develop a new cognitive science tool that identifies people at risk for suicide using preconscious brain signals rather than asking questions and waiting for consciously filtered answers.

“NEAT is a proof-of-concept effort attempting to develop a new mental and behavioral health screening tool that takes us beyond historical and current methods of consciously filtered questions and answers,” said Greg Witkop, former army surgeon and current program manager. at DARPA’s Office of Defense Science. “Using the preconscious will hopefully allow us to detect signs of depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation earlier and more reliably than ever before. If successful, NEAT will not only increase significantly significant behavioral health screening, but it could also serve as a new way to assess the ultimate effectiveness of treatment, as patients will often tell their clinicians what they think the clinician wants to hear rather than what they really feel.”

By analogy, the NEAT is meant to be to mental health what an MRI is to the physical body: a way to assess injuries. As an MRI can detect an early meniscal tear before a more serious injury develops that can impact a soldier’s readiness, NEAT would identify psychological and behavioral changes before they impact on readiness.

NEAT does not focus on lie detection, truth detection, or assessing someone’s credibility, but rather on aggregating preconscious brain signals to determine what someone believes to be true. The screening process envisioned could involve the presentation of various utterance stimuli relevant to behavioral health, such as biographical information, actions, or intentions (e.g., I want to end my life/enjoy my life) to measure preconscious responses. NEAT would triangulate the responses to the aggregated evidence and determine whether the person reading the stimulus statements thinks they are true, false, or indeterminate.

The program includes two technical areas. The first area focuses on research and development and will include several multidisciplinary teams spanning cognitive science, bioengineering and machine learning to address all key technical challenges to develop NEAT processes. The second technical area concerns independent validation and verification. Those selected for this second area will work with DARPA and technical area one teams to provide expertise and independently validate NEAT methods.

NEAT is planned as a 3.5-year program, with a 24-month proof-of-concept phase, followed by an 18-month operational set-up phase. Throughout the lifecycle of the program, DARPA will rely on an independent Ethical, Legal, and Societal Issues (ELSI) panel to advise NEAT program management and performers on ELSI concerns.

“Ultimately, NEAT intends to augment current behavioral health screening programs by providing clinicians with previously unavailable information to enable earlier interventions and more reliable measures of successful treatment,” said Witkop said. “Just as objective evidence of an X-ray or MRI is sometimes needed to help prevent a service member from feeling like they’ve let down their unit because of a visible injury, NEAT will attempt to provide objective evidence of invisible wounds to get help provided on time.”

A Virtual Nominator Day for potential Nominators is scheduled for March 15, 2022. For more information and registration details, visit SAM.gov. An agency wide announcement (BAA) solicitation should be available on SAM.gov in the coming weeks.

Read the announcement at DARPA

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