DARPA awards contracts to develop implantable neural interface

ARLINGTON, Va. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded contracts to five research organizations and one company that will support its Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, which aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide precise communication between the human brain and the digital world. DARPA had previously reported that it expected to spend as much as $60 million on the NESD program.

Under the auspices of the NESD program, DARPA has charged Brown University, Columbia University, Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation), John B. Pierce Laboratory, the University of California at Berkeley, and brain/machine interface company Paradromics to form teams to develop the fundamental research and component technologies required to pursue the NESD vision of a high-resolution neural interface and integrate them to create and demonstrate working systems able to support potential future therapies for sensory restoration. Four of the teams will focus on vision and two will focus on aspects of hearing and speech.

DARPA announced NESD in January 2016 with the goal of developing an implantable interface that would convert the electrochemical signaling used by neurons in the brain into the ones and zeros that constitute the language of , and do so at far greater scale than is currently possible. The work has the potential to significantly advance scientists' understanding of the neural underpinnings of vision, hearing, and speech and could eventually lead to new treatments for people living with sensory deficits.

During the initial year of the program, the focus will be on making fundamental breakthroughs in hardware, software, and neuroscience, and testing those advances in animals and cultured cells. Phase two of the program will emphasize ongoing basic studies, along with progress in miniaturization and integration, with particular focus on possible pathways to regulatory approval for human safety testing of newly developed devices. As part of Phase Two, researchers will cooperate with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to exploration such issues as long-term safety of implants, privacy, information , compatibility with other devices, and the numerous other aspects regulators consider as they evaluate potential applications of new technologies.

Among the many disciplines represented in the research teams are neuroscience, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, mathematics, computer science, and communications. In addition to overcoming the engineering challenges inherent with implantables -- suitability of hardware, biocompatibility, and communication -- the teams must also develop advanced mathematical and neurocomputation techniques to capture neural data and compress the plethora of information so that it is usable within the constraints of the interface's bandwidth and power.

Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD program manager, said of the effort: “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.”

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