DARPA Next-Generation Neurotechnology and breakthroughs from Neuralink and Open Water Red light scanner

DARPA is funding development of high resolution brain interfaces. At the same time there are two companies who have breakthrough technology for higher resolution brain interfaces. The two companies are Elon Musk’s Neuralink and Mary Lou Jepsen’s Openwater red light scanner. The Neuralink and Openwater systems will be described after the DARPA project and its goals.

The DARPA Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology (N3) program aims to develop a high resolution neural interface that does not require surgery. While previous DARPA programs have developed neural interfaces intended to restore function to the wounded warrior, the N3 program will broaden the applicability of neural interfaces to the able-bodied warfighter.

Notional N3 prototype. 1A – Nanotransducers supporting read and write functions (for TA2 devices only). 1B right – Notional concept of at least two subcomponents integrated into one device. 1B left – notional diagram of multiple devices used to achieve multi-focal interaction with the brain. 1C – Processing unit for decoding and encoding computation between the N3 system and relevant DoD application.

A neural interface that enables fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied warfighters is the ultimate program goal. The promise of efficient warfighter multitasking and intuitive interaction with autonomous and semi-autonomous systems point to the need to develop technologies targeted at enriching human-machine interaction. In addition, it is imperative that warfighters be able to interact regularly and intuitively with artificially intelligent (AI), semi-autonomous and autonomous systems in a manner currently possible with conventional interfaces. The N3 program will develop the interface technology required for current and future systems.

The high-resolution neural interfaces available today require a craniotomy for direct placement
into the brain.

To reach high temporal and spatial resolution, N3 will focus on two approaches:

noninvasive (Technical Area 1 –TA1) and “minutely” invasive (Technical Area 2 – TA2) neural interfaces. Noninvasive interfaces will include the development of sensors and stimulators that do not breach the skin and will achieve neural ensemble resolution (less than 1 cubic millimeter).

Minutely invasive approaches will permit nonsurgical delivery of a nanotransducer: this could include a self-assembly approach, viral vectors, molecular, chemical and/or biomolecular technology delivered to neurons of interest to reach single neuron resolution (less 50 cubic microns).

Both noninvasive and minutely invasive approaches will be required to overcome issues with signal scattering, attenuation, and signal-to-noise ratio typically seen with state of the art noninvasive neural interfaces. Systems that are larger or requiring a highly controlled environment – such as magnetoencephalography (MEG), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – and proposals describing incremental improvements upon current technologies, such as electroencephalography (EEG), may not be considered responsive to this BAA and may not be evaluated.

Final N3 deliverables will include a complete integrated bidirectional brain-machine interface system. Non-invasive approaches will include sensor (read) and stimulator (write) subcomponents integrated into a device (or devices) external to the body.

The N3 program will provide up to four years of funding to deliver a nonsurgical neural interface system and is divided into three sequential Phases:
Phase I (base effort)– 12 months,
Phase II (option) – 18 months, and
Phase III (option) – 18 months.

Neuralink improved brain computer interfaces

In 2016, Nature Methods described the Neural lace technology that is being developed at Neuralink.

Stable in vivo mapping and modulation of the same neurons and brain circuits over extended periods is critical to both neuroscience and medicine. Current electrical implants offer single-neuron spatiotemporal resolution but are limited by such factors as relative shear motion and chronic immune responses during long-term recording. To overcome these limitations, we developed a chronic in vivo recording and stimulation platform based on flexible mesh electronics, and we demonstrated stable multiplexed local field potentials and single-unit recordings in mouse brains for at least 8 months without probe repositioning.

It is not clear what the resolution is of neural lace. Other EU Researchers on the Graphene Flagship project of the European Commission have developed flexible devices, based on graphene field-effect transistors, for recording brain activity in high resolution. Arrays of 16 graphene-based transistors, each with an active area less than the cross section of a human hair, arranged on a flexible substrate and placed on the surface of the brain, permit recording of neural activity by detecting electric fields generated when neurons fire.

Red light scanning into the body and 100 micron high resolution brain interfaces

Inventor Mary Lou Jepsen shows how we can use red light to see and potentially stimulate what’s inside our bodies and brains. Taking us to the edge of optical physics, Jepsen unveils new technologies that utilize light and sound to track tumors, measure neural activity and could possibly replace the MRI machine with a cheaper, more efficient and wearable system.

Mary Lou leads the Open Water startup in developing this technology.

Openwater is startup focused on devising a new generation of imaging technologies, with high resolution and low costs, enabling medical diagnoses and treatments, and a new era of fluid and affordable brain-to-computer communications. The firm’s vision – changing how we read and write our bodies and brains – leverages important inventions in opto-electronic and holographic systems, using red and benign near-infrared light, which penetrate our flesh and bones. The goal is to use these technologies to build better, faster and cheaper solutions in healthcare – for strokes, cancer and many diseases, all working non-invasively – without opening the body or brain.

Openwater can focus infrared light down very finely, to sub-mm or even a few microns depending on the depth. Already 10 cm of depth can be shown with about 100 micron resolution or focusing power; this enables stimulation of certain areas using light itself. Benign near-infrared light. No probes, no needles, no cutting open a skull, no injections. While these numbers are more than enough for a variety of products, we are working on improving both the depth and focusing resolution and making rapid progress.

This light-based system will not only be vastly smaller and cheaper than existing magnetic MRI, it will also have vastly higher resolution.

This is enabled by LCDs with pixels small enough to create reconstructive holographic images that neutralize the scattering and enable scanning at MRI resolution and depth coupled with the use of body-temperature detectors. These LCDs and detectors line the inside of a ski-hat, bandage or other clothing. They are making our own sub-components to do this in the vast factories that make the world’s consumer electronics- custom designed to both record and even to modulate the interference of intensity and phase in the near infrared regime with the video-rate computer-generated holograms integrated with embedded detectors. They can scan out the brain or body systematically or selectively. This basic system can be used in reverse, to write, to focus light to any area of interest in the body or brain (to irradiate tumors for example).

This technology enables continuous scanning of the body and brain in the form of a true wearable the size of a ski-hat or bandage. The implications of this architecture are profound for healthcare and can even enable communication with thought alone (as has been well documented by neuroscientists using the room size MRI scanners). With read/write ability – we may be able to upload/download and augment our memories, thoughts, and emotions with a ski-hat form factor, non-invasively.