The DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) on Monday awarded contracts to five organizations and one company to develop neural implants that can enable communication between the brain and digital systems. The funding to the tune of $65 million comes under the agency’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) programme launched last year under the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative that aims to research and develop a high-resolution neural interface.
Paradromics, Inc, a company out of San Jose and Brown University will focus on aspects of hearing and speech, while Columbia University, Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation) in Paris, France, John B. Pierce Laboratory in Connecticut and the University of California, Berkeley, will study vision.
NESD is looking to design an “implantable system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world. Such an interface would convert the electrochemical signaling 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 agency said in a statement on Monday.
The outcome of the research is expected to help those with disabilities such as hearing, vision, and speech. “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 agency added.
“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.”
The research will be divided into two phases. The program’s first year will focus on hardware, software and neuroscience, including testing on animals and cells. On the other hand, phase two will include further study, progress in miniaturization and integration of the neural technology, with attention to future regulatory approval. As part of that phase, the agency and its partners will coordinate with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to explore issues such as long-term safety of installing DARPA’s dream implant in and on the human brain, privacy, information security and compatibility with other devices.
DARPA is hoping to have prototypes of devices that can communicate information between the brain and computers ready at the end of the four-year program, although the chances of these being used in a clinical or commercial sense within that timeframe is not likely possible.