January 22, 2016

DARPA making fully implantable devices able to connect with up to one million neurons for breakthrough computer-brain interfacing

A new DARPA program aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world. The interface would serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. The goal is to achieve this communications link in a biocompatible device no larger than one cubic centimeter in size, roughly the volume of two nickels stacked back to back.

The program, Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), stands to dramatically enhance research capabilities in neurotechnology and provide a foundation for new therapies.

“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” said Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”

Among the program’s potential applications are devices that could compensate for deficits in sight or hearing by feeding digital auditory or visual information into the brain at a resolution and experiential quality far higher than is possible with current technology.

Neural interfaces currently approved for human use squeeze a tremendous amount of information through just 100 channels, with each channel aggregating signals from tens of thousands of neurons at a time. The result is noisy and imprecise. In contrast, the NESD program aims to develop systems that can communicate clearly and individually with any of up to one million neurons in a given region of the brain.

The Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program seeks innovative research proposals to design, build, demonstrate, and validate in animal and human subjects a neural interface system capable of recording from more than one million neurons, stimulating more than one hundred thousand neurons, and performing continuous, simultaneous full-duplex (read and write) interaction with at least one thousand neurons in regions of the human sensory cortex. In addition to achieving substantial advances in scale of interface (independent channel count), proposed systems must also demonstrate simultaneous high-precision in neural activity detection, transduction, and encoding, with single-neuron spike-train precision for each independent channel.

The Neural Engineering System Design program aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.

Achieving the program’s ambitious goals and ensuring that the envisioned devices will have the potential to be practical outside of a research setting will require integrated breakthroughs across numerous disciplines including neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing. In addition to the program’s hardware challenges, NESD researchers will be required to develop advanced mathematical and neuro-computation techniques to first transcode high-definition sensory information between electronic and cortical neuron representations and then compress and represent those data with minimal loss of fidelity and functionality.

To accelerate that integrative process, the NESD program aims to recruit a diverse roster of leading industry stakeholders willing to offer state-of-the-art prototyping and manufacturing services and intellectual property to NESD researchers on a pre-competitive basis. In later phases of the program, these partners could help transition the resulting technologies into research and commercial application spaces.

DARPA anticipates investing up to $60 million in the NESD program over four years.

NESD is part of a broader portfolio of programs within DARPA that support President Obama’s brain initiative.

Successful NESD proposals must culminate in the delivery of complete, functional, implantable neural interface systems and the functional demonstration thereof. The final system must read at least one million independent channels of single-neuron information and stimulate at least one hundred thousand channels of independent neural action potentials in real-time. The system must also perform continuous, simultaneous full-duplex interaction with at least one thousand neurons. While DARPA desires a single cubic centimeter device that satisfies all of these capabilities (read, write, and full-duplex), offerors may propose a design wherein each capability is embodied in separate 1 cm3 devices. Proposed implementations must not require tethers or percutaneous connectors for powering or facilitating communication between the implanted and external portions of the system. 


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