DARPA plans to harness biology and master neurotechnologies

DARPA today released Breakthrough Technologies for National Security, a biennial report summarizing the Agency’s historical mission, current and evolving focus areas and recent transitions of DARPA-developed technologies to the military Services and other sectors.

One of DARPA’s four main areas of focus is to harness biology.

Harness Biology as Technology: To leverage recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, immunology, genetics and related fields, DARPA in 2014 created its Biological Technologies Office, which has enabled a new level of momentum for the Agency’s portfolio of innovative, bio-based programs. DARPA’s work in this area includes programs to accelerate progress in synthetic biology, outpace the spread of infectious diseases and master new neurotechnologies.

Harnessing Biology as a Technology

• Accelerating Progress in Synthetic Biology

Biological systems have evolved tremendously sophisticated and highly efficient approaches to synthesizing compounds, including some with the potential to address current challenges in fields ranging from medicine to materials science. DARPA is developing technologies to harness biology’s synthetic and functional capabilities, with the goal of creating revolutionary bio-based manufacturing platforms that can enable new production paradigms and create materials with novel properties

• Outpacing Infectious Diseases

As the 2014 Ebola outbreak demonstrated, emerging infectious diseases can be a significant threat not just to health but also to national stability. DARPA is developing unconventional biological approaches to reduce the threats posed by infectious disease. Among the Agency’s goals are the development of genetic and immunological technologies to detect, diagnose and treat infectious diseases with unprecedented precision and rapidity, and platforms for exploring the evolution of viruses, predicting mutational pathways and developing drugs and vaccines in advance of need.

Mastering New Neurotechnologies

Recent advances in microelectronics, information science and neuroscience are enabling the development of novel therapies to accelerate recovery after a range of injuries and, in the longer run, new approaches to optimizing human performance. Among the Agency’s goals in this domain are implantable neural interfaces for human clinical use to bridge gaps in the injured brain, help overcome memory deficits and precisely deliver therapeutic stimuli in patients with neuropsychiatric and neurological disease; and systems to provide sensor-enabled feedback from prosthetic hands to the nervous system to provide enhanced dexterity and even the sense of touch for amputees.

DARPA’s Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx, pronounced “electrics”) program aims to develop ultraminiaturized feedback-controlled neuromodulation technologies that would monitor health status and intervene as needed to deliver patient-specific therapeutic patterns of stimulation designed to restore a healthy physiological state. Peripheral neuromodulation therapies based on ElectRx research could help maximize the immunological, physical and mental health of military Service members and veterans.

Revolutionizing Prosthetics

Improvements in upper-limb prosthetic technology have trailed far behind lower-limb technology advances, reflecting the medical and engineering challenges posed by the complexities of the human arm and hand. In 2014, capping an intensive, multi-year effort by DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave marketing approval for a DARPA-developed modular prosthetic arm and hand that provides unprecedented user dexterity. Users can once again perform everyday activities such as feeding themselves, shaking hands and offering a child a pat on the back or a hug.