Friday, July 14, 2017

U.S. Spends $65 Million to Build Brain Implants

The quest to create a real link between machines and human brains has potentially groundbreaking consequences.

If high-functioning implants can be developed to link human brains with computers, people who have gone blind or deaf could possibly receive sensory information that would restore some, if not all, of their lost capabilities. Those with prosthetic limbs may be able to use them as if they were an integrated part of the body.

An agency of the U.S. military announced Monday that it was stepping up its investment and pursuit of this goal. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced Monday that contracts worth a total of $65 million had been distributed to five research organizations and one company working to build brain implants that could revolutionize treatment of people who have lost one or more of their senses.


Ultimately, the goal is to decode sensory information that humans receive through their eyes, ears and other senses. This information has to be converted into a series of ones and zeros—known as binary code—that can be read by a computer.

This process is already possible, but DARPA wants to drastically increase the speed at which sensory information can be read by a machine. The best brain implants currently available—such as those that help paralyzed people control robotic limbs—receive information from several hundred neurons in the body’s nervous system. DARPA wants to increase that to engaging 1 million neurons in parallel.

But even then, it’ll still be much slower than a human brain. “A million neurons represents a miniscule percentage of the 86 billion neurons in the human brain. Its deeper complexities are going to remain a mystery for some time to come,” said Phillip Alvelda, the founding program manager of NESD.

The projects involve a variety of techniques that aim to treat sensory loss. One at Columbia University in New York envisages building a prosthetic, flexible circuit that could be laid over the brain. The device would use electrodes to “listen” to neurons deep in the visual cortex—the part of the brain that processes visual information—and stimulate those neurons to create a picture for people with impaired vision. The subject would wear a small device known as a transceiver on their head that would help process the information.

Another project by Paradromics, a California-based technology firm, aims to develop a device that would penetrate into the brain with multiple tiny electrodes to record and stimulate specific neurons. The ultimate goal would be to create a device that could help restore speech for deaf or mute people.


DARPA has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in neurotechnology—the intersection between brain function and digital technology—in projects that aim to treat mental illness or post-traumatic stress suffered by soldiers. But the NESD program has broader implications and constitutes “the groundwork for a future in which brain interface technologies will transform how people live and work,” said Justin Sanchez, the head of DARPA’s Biological Technologies team.

But while the projects hold great potential for the future, the developers themselves are quick to add a note of realism. “It will be a long time before medical science allows us to grow new eyes or repair a broken spinal cord, but by linking brains to computers it will be possible to leverage digital devices to restore the functionality of damaged body parts,” Matthew Angle, the head of Paradromics, told Gizmodo.

The funding is part of DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, launched in January 2016, which aims to develop “an implantable system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world.” NESD is one of multiple programs inaugurated under the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative, which was announced in 2013.

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