DARPA cracks wallet to open heads: Brain interface projects get Uncle Sam's backing

It's hoped cutting-edge tech will bridge broken senses

Arto Nurmikko, Brown University
Arto Nurmikko, Brown University

The US military's research nerve center DARPA on Monday awarded contracts to five organizations and one company to develop brain interface technology.

By funding projects at Brown University, Columbia University, Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation), John B Pierce Laboratory, Paradromics, and the University of California, Berkeley, DARPA aims to build knowledge about how brain interfaces work, and to develop technology capable of restoring impaired or lost senses.

The awards are part of DARPA's $60m Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program announced in January, 2016 to develop a brain interface capable of communicating with up to one million neurons at a time. NESD is one of several brain-focused initiatives at the agency.

Research into brain–machine interfaces (BMIs) has been ongoing for several decades and that work has led to recent advances, like the first fully implantable brain–computer interface for home use by a locked-in patient with ALS.

"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, in a statement. "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."

In acknowledging its DARPA contract, Paradromics said it plans to develop a Neural Input-Output Bus (NIOB) "capable of reading and stimulating brain activity from 1 million neurons with an effective data rate of > 1 Gbps."

When DARPA announced NESD last year, Alvelda compared the data rate of brain interfaces to a 300-baud modem.

Brown University is slated to receive as much as $19m to develop a network of fully implantable brain–machine interface composed of sensors the size of salt grains that will form a "cortical internet."

"What we're developing is essentially a micro-scale wireless network in the brain, enabling us to communicate directly with neurons on a scale that hasn't previously been possible," said Arto Nurmikko, professor of engineering at Brown, in a statement.

DARPA's interest in brain interface technology is shared by private sector technology firms, including Elon Musk's Neuralink, Kernel, and ad giant Facebook (following its recruitment of ex-DARPA head Regina Dugan).

Bryan Johnson, founder and CEO of Kernel, in a phone interview with The Register, said, "The progression of technology is throttled by the power of our tools. What DARPA sees, which is consistent with what I see, is that after decades of progress in microelectronics and materials science, it's now possible to undertake a project like this."

Johnson said DARPA has galvanized areas of technology research in the past and its involvement may do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genetic research.

Many recent brain science discoveries, Johnson said, have been serendipitous. With a better foundational understanding of the brain and better tools, he hopes to see more theory-driven discovery.

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