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DARPA awards contracts for implantable tech to connect the brain and digital world

 
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – with the rather dystopian-sounding acronym, DARPA – has awarded contracts to five research organizations and one company that will support their Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program to develop an implantable neural system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world.

Specifically, they are looking to develop high-resolution neural interface technologies that can be used for sensory restoration. Four of the teams will focus on vision and two will focus on aspects of hearing and speech.

The implantable neural interface will convert the electrochemical signalling used by neurons in the brain into the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology, and do so at far greater scale than is currently possible. The work has the potential to significantly advance scientists’ understanding of the neural underpinnings of vision, hearing, and speech and could eventually lead to new treatments for people living with sensory deficits.

“The NESD program looks ahead to a future in which advanced neural devices offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interface for therapeutic applications,” said Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD Program Manager. “By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than one million neurons in parallel, NESD aims to enable rich two-way communication with the brain at a scale that will help deepen our understanding of that organ’s underlying biology, complexity, and function.”

Although the goal of communicating with one million neurons sounds lofty, Alvelda noted, “A million neurons represents a miniscule percentage of the 86 billion neurons in the human brain. Its deeper complexities are going to remain a mystery for some time to come. But if we’re successful in delivering rich sensory signals directly to the brain, NESD will lay a broad foundation for new neurological therapies.”

The program’s first year will focus on making fundamental breakthroughs in hardware, software, and neuroscience, and testing those advances in animals and cultured cells. Phase II of the program calls for ongoing basic studies, along with progress in miniaturization and integration, with attention to possible pathways to regulatory approval for human safety testing of newly developed devices.

The NESD call for proposals laid out a series of specific technical goals, including development of an implantable package that accounts for power, communications, and biocompatibility concerns. Part of the fundamental research challenge will be developing a deep understanding of how the brain processes hearing, speech, and vision simultaneously with individual neuron-level precision and at a scale sufficient to represent detailed imagery and sound. The selected teams will apply insights into those biological processes to the development of strategies for interpreting neuronal activity quickly and with minimal power and computational resources.

“Significant technical challenges lie ahead, but the teams we assembled have formulated feasible plans to deliver coordinated breakthroughs across a range of disciplines and integrate those efforts into end-to-end systems,” Alvelda said.

 

 

Date of upload: 17th Sep 2017

                                  
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