For 30 years, Phillip Alvelda had been patiently waiting. He had dreamed it possible to directly connect the human brain with electronics; all he needed was for the right technology to mature.
In December 2014, he saw his chance. He was recruited by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency within the U.S. Department of Defense charged with making pivotal investments in technology to advance national security. His goal: Determine if it’s possible to use electronic interfaces to assist people with sensory deficits.
“The opportunity was to come to DARPA and develop a whole new technology to connect brains directly to computers in such a way that it would revolutionize medical therapies for blindness and deafness,” said Alvelda.
The past decade had already offered breakthroughs in amputee care, with researchers demonstrating the ability to control prosthetics with thought and even evoke sensation and register touch in an artificial limb. Building on that research, the Neural Engineering System Design program aims to develop systems that can electronically communicate with the region of the brain that assists sensory function.
In July, DARPA awarded $21.8 million in contracts to five research organizations and one company to support the program: Brown University; Columbia University; Paris-based Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation); John B. Pierce Laboratory; the University of California, Berkeley and San Jose, California-based Paradromics Inc. Four of the six teams will focus on vision and two teams will focus on aspects of hearing and speech.
The teams will be pushed for 12 months to demonstrate that their concepts are feasible and worthy of taxpayer money to develop. Some teams are building on technology that already exists, while others are in early research stages.
“We don’t want to discriminate against lower, not quite as mature technology,” said Brad Ringeisen, current program director for NESD, who replaced Alvelda when his term expired at DARPA this spring. “That may be the key that unlocks the whole thing.”
No matter the strategy,the teams have the same goal: to aid in therapies to help restore senses to people suffering from impairments.
But by next summer, DARPA will have slimmed down the pack, selecting only a few teams to advance to the second phase of the program to complete more testing. By the end of the four-year program, DARPA hopes the technology will be developed enough to read activity from 1 million neurons, stimulate 100,000 neurons and provide closed-loop communication with the brain.
Those goals may prove too lofty for the time frame, admits Ringeisen. He hopes that even if the teams don’t meet the deliverables, the technology will advance enough to be turned over to industry and other research organizations for continued development.
“If you set the bar high, sometimes you get across it,” Ringeisen said. “That’s been the special sauce about DARPA throughout its history.”
Original article here.