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Darpa Funding Research on Brain-Digital Implants

Brain illustration

(DARPA.gov)

10 July 2017. The advanced research agency in Department of Defense is supporting six new projects on neural devices that connect the brain to digital technologies to restore sensory functions. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, made the awards to 4 academic labs, a research foundation, and a business.

The funding comes from Darpa’s Neural Engineering System Design program that seeks to develop a high-resolution implantable connection between the brain and digital electronics. The device, says the agency, aims to be compact, about 1 cubic centimeter in size, and able to convert data between electrochemical signals in the nervous system to digital signals containing data encoded in ones and zeroes. The research is expected to cross several scientific disciplines including neuroscience, synthetic biology, photonics, and engineering.

The initiative’s immediate goal is to expand the capacity of neural connections to engage more than 1 million neurons in parallel, bringing a richer interchange of data and signals that leads to new therapies addressing deficits in vision, hearing, and speech. The first round of studies is designed to create breakthroughs in software, equipment, and neuroscience with preclinical testing in lab cultures and animals. Later stages are expected to focus on miniaturization and integration, with the goal of creating devices ready for clinical trials and regulatory approval. With that eventual goal in mind, Food and Drug Administration representatives will advise the initiative on regulatory issues, such as safety, privacy, and compatibility with other medical technologies.

Funding recipients include:

Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where a team led by neuroengineering professor Arto Nurmikko aims to decode neural processing of speech, particularly tone and vocalization aspects of auditory perception. Nurmikko and colleagues proposed a network of 100,000 tiny sensors in the brain called neurograins, powered by an external passive radio unit or patch, acting as a relay to external instruments translating and processing neural and digital signals.

Columbia University in New York, where engineering professor Ken Shepard and colleagues are devising an integrated circuit with a surface recording array of 1 million electrodes, designed to be very light and flexible enough to adjust to tissue, but still sited outside the brain. A transceiver unit worn on the head would provide power and communicate wirelessly with the device.

Fondation Voir et Entendre in Paris where researchers Jose-Alain Sahel and Serge Picaud are expected to apply optogenetics — using light to influence brain signals — to communicate between neurons in the brain and an artificial retina worn over the eyes, helped along with implanted electronics and tiny light-emitting diodes. The foundation studies technologies affecting vision and hearing.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where neuroscientist Vincent Pieribone and colleagues in the John B. Pierce Laboratory also plan to study optogenetics and vision. The Pieribone team will design a system that connects neurons capable of bioluminescence for responding to optogenetics and connecting to an optical prosthetic device communicating with the part of the brain processing visual information.

University of California in Berkeley, where Ehud Isacoff’s team expects to develop a holographic microscope that can detect and modulate the activity of up to 1 million neurons in the cerebral cortex. Isacoff and colleagues aim to create computational models that predict responses of neurons to visual and tactile stimulation, and use the models to forecast sensory activity in the brain for devices that restore vision or control prosthetic devices for lost limbs.

Paradromics Inc. in San Jose, California, the only business among the awardees, where company CEO Matthew Angle and colleagues plan to develop a brain implant called a neural input–output bus with a high data rate to record and stimulate neurons. The Paradromics device is expected to use large arrays of electrodes to help restore speech functions, such as for individuals with ALS.

Darpa did not release funding amounts for the individual recipients, but Brown and Columbia universities and Paradromics reported awards between $15.8 and $19 million. Fortune magazine reports the agency expects to spend a total of $65 million.

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