The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded five research institutions and one company contracts under their new Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) initiative. DARPA aims to develop a portable, high-resolution neural interface. The task is formidable; the teams must overcome engineering challenges related to current hardware limitations, issues of biocompatibility, information processing, and feasibility. To this end, DARPA is funding six teams to develop and improve neural interface capabilities and create functional technologies that could potentially lead to sensory restoration/rehabilitation. Four of the six teams will focus on vision while the remaining two will focus on hearing and speech:
1. Brown University, under principal investigator Dr. Arto Nurmikko will focus on the auditory perception of speech by developing an interface system composed of tens of thousands of “neurograin sensors.” The sensors, each about the size of a grain of salt, will communicate wirelessly to sense neural signals.
2. Columbia University, under principal investigator Dr. Ken Shepard, will focus on vision through the development of a “bioelectric interface with the visual cortex.” The device will consist of a flexible metal-oxide semiconductor integrated circuit with high-density electrodes to wirelessly deliver the recording and stimulation of neurons.
3. The Seeing and Hearing Foundation (Fondation Voir et Entendre), under principal investigators Dr. Jose-Alain Sahel and Dr. Serge Picaud will focus on vision through the development of a high-definition artificial retina worn over the eyes. The aim is that the device will enable communication between neurons of the visual cortex to an external device and will transform images into stimulation patterns for the visual cortex.
4. The John B. Pierce Laboratory, under principal investigator Dr. Vincent Pieribone will focus on vision through the development of an interface system with an all-optical prosthesis. This device will allow for the precise stimulation of neurons through a directional micro-LED array.
5. Paradromics, Inc., under principal investigator Dr. Matthew Angle, will focus on speech and hearing through the development of an implantable device, called the “Neural Input-Output Bus (NIOB).” NIOB aims to create a high-resolution and high-data rate interface with the visual cortex using penetrating microwire electrodes.
6. The University of California Berkeley, under principal investigator Dr. Ehud Isacoff, will focus on vision through the development of a highly sensitive miniaturized microscope that can detect up to a million neurons at a time in the cerebral cortex. This technology could help in the creation of three-dimensional holograms that can stimulate neural activity, where the device could, in theory, fill gaps where a sensory perception is lacking, such as vision or a brain-machine interface for an artificial limb.
Founding NESD Program Manager, Phillip Alvedla wrote, “the NESD program looks ahead to a future in which advanced neural devices offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interface for therapeutic applications. 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.”
Neural interfaces are an emergent technology, one that holds great promise for people with disabilities. DARPA is one of the biggest players to invest in expanding neurotechnology. Source: DARPA.