DARPA announced NESD in January 2016 with the goal of developing an implantable system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world. Such an interface would convert the electrochemical signaling used by neurons in the brain into the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology, 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.
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.
“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.”
“The NESD program looks ahead to a future in which advanced neural devices offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interface for therapeutic applications,” said Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD Program Manager. “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.”
Although the goal of communicating with one million neurons sounds lofty, Alvelda noted, “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. But if we’re successful in delivering rich sensory signals directly to the brain, NESD will lay a broad foundation for new neurological therapies.”
The Research would enable highly efficient Brain-computer interfaces that could be applied in neuroprosthetics, through which paralyzed persons are able to control robotic arms, neurogaming where one can control keyboard, mouse etc using their thoughts and play games, neuroanalysis (psychology), and in defense to control robotic soldiers or fly planes with thoughts.
This would also result in efficient in efficient Brain control devices. Researchers at the University of Zurich have identified the brain mechanism that governs decisions between honesty and self-interest. Using non-invasive brain stimulation, they could even increase honest behavior. Government is also interested in controlling mind control of people to spread its propoganda while disrupting dissent. Military is interested in mind control of soldiers. Whistleblower has recently revealed about secret DARPA project military mind control project at major university.
DARPA has awarded contracts to five research organizations and one company that will support the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program: Brown University; Columbia University; Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation); John B. Pierce Laboratory; Paradromics, Inc.; and the University of California, Berkeley.
These organizations have formed 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’s “Neural Engineering System Design” program
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 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’s first year will focus on making fundamental breakthroughs in hardware, software, and neuroscience, and testing those advances in animals and cultured cells. Phase II of the program calls for ongoing basic studies, along with progress in miniaturization and integration, with attention to possible pathways to regulatory approval for human safety testing of newly developed devices. As part of that effort, researchers will cooperate with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin exploration of issues such as long-term safety, privacy, information security, compatibility with other devices, and the numerous other aspects regulators consider as they evaluate potential applications of new technologies.
The NESD call for proposals laid out a series of specific technical goals, including development of an implantable package that accounts for power, communications, and biocompatibility concerns. Part of the fundamental research challenge will be developing a deep understanding of how the brain processes hearing, speech, and vision simultaneously with individual neuron-level precision and at a scale sufficient to represent detailed imagery and sound. The selected teams will apply insights into those biological processes to the development of strategies for interpreting neuronal activity quickly and with minimal power and computational resources.
“Significant technical challenges lie ahead, but the teams we assembled have formulated feasible plans to deliver coordinated breakthroughs across a range of disciplines and integrate those efforts into end-to-end systems,” Alvelda said
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.
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 1 cm3 device that satisfies all of these capabilities (read, write, and full-duplex), proposers 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.
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.
Details of DARPA’s NESD awards
The teams’ approaches include a mix of fundamental research and applied science and engineering. The teams will either pursue development and integration of complete NESD systems, or advance particular aspects of the research, engineering, and mathematics required to achieve the NESD vision, providing new tools, capabilities, and understanding. Summaries of the teams’ proposed research appear below:
A Brown University team led by Dr. Arto Nurmikko will seek to decode neural processing of speech, focusing on the tone and vocalization aspects of auditory perception. The team’s proposed interface would be composed of networks of up to 100,000 untethered, submillimeter-sized “neurograin” sensors implanted onto or into the cerebral cortex. A separate RF unit worn or implanted as a flexible electronic patch would passively power the neurograins and serve as the hub for relaying data to and from an external command center that transcodes and processes neural and digital signals.
What we’re developing is essentially a micro-scale wireless network in the brain enabling us to communicate directly with neurons on a scale that hasn’t previously been possible,” Arto Nurmikko, a professor of engineering at Brown said in a statement. “The understanding of the brain we can get from such a system will hopefully lead to new therapeutic strategies involving neural stimulation of the brain, which we can implement with this new neurotechnology.”
A Columbia University team led by Dr. Ken Shepard will study vision and aims to develop a non-penetrating bioelectric interface to the visual cortex that could eventually enable computers to see what we see — or potentially allow human brains to tap directly into video feeds. The team envisions layering over the cortex a single, flexible complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) integrated circuit containing an integrated electrode array. A relay station transceiver worn on the head would wirelessly power and communicate with the implanted device.
A Fondation Voir et Entendre team led by Drs. Jose-Alain Sahel and Serge Picaud will study vision. The team aims to apply techniques from the field of optogenetics to enable communication between neurons in the visual cortex and a camera-based, high-definition artificial retina worn over the eyes, facilitated by a system of implanted electronics and micro-LED optical technology.
A John B. Pierce Laboratory team led by Dr. Vincent Pieribone will also study vision. The team will pursue an interface system in which modified neurons capable of bioluminescence and responsive to optogenetic stimulation communicate with an all-optical prosthesis for the visual cortex.
A Paradromics, Inc., team led by Dr. Matthew Angle aims to create a high-data-rate cortical interface using large arrays of penetrating microwire electrodes for high-resolution recording and stimulation of neurons. As part of the NESD program, the team will seek to build an implantable device to support speech restoration. Paradromics’ microwire array technology exploits the reliability of traditional wire electrodes, but by bonding these wires to specialized CMOS electronics the team seeks to overcome the scalability and bandwidth limitations of previous approaches using wire electrodes.
A University of California, Berkeley, team led by Dr. Ehud Isacoff aims to develop a novel “light field” holographic microscope that can detect and modulate the activity of up to a million neurons in the cerebral cortex. The team will attempt to create quantitative encoding models to predict the responses of neurons to external visual and tactile stimuli, and then apply those predictions to structure photo-stimulation patterns that elicit sensory percepts in the visual or somatosensory cortices, where the device could replace lost vision or serve as a brain-machine interface for control of an artificial limb.
DARPA structured the NESD program to facilitate commercial transition of successful technologies. Key to ensuring a smooth path to practical applications, teams will have access to design assistance, rapid prototyping, and fabrication services provided by industry partners whose participation as facilitators was organized by DARPA and who will operate as sub-contractors to the teams.
References and Resources also include: