What if a portable computer system could one day interact directly with the human brain to help restore a person's ability to see or hear? A project recently launched by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is tasking research teams with answering that question.
DARPA, the research arm of the U.S. military, has awarded contracts to five organizations for the development of neural implants that could enable brains to communicate with computer interfaces to restore sensory performance — primarily speech, hearing and sight, DARPA representatives announced today (July 10) in a statement.
Scientists will investigate the role of neural networks operating within specific brain regions — down to the level of individual neurons — in order to understand how brains process sensory input. The researchers will also develop technologies and algorithms capable of both interpreting and generating signals in the brain, according to DARPA. [Humanoid Robots to Flying Cars: 10 Coolest DARPA Projects]
Research teams will operate under DARPA's Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, working to develop implantable technologies that act as translators between the electrochemical "language" of firing neurons and the numerical code that powers computers' "brains." This could enable computers to send information and commands directly to the parts of the brain that process sensory input, and at a scale that is out of reach for technologies available today, Elizabeth Strychalski, a program manager with DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, explained on DARPA's website.
A group from Brown University in Rhode Island proposed decoding how the brain processes speech by seeding a subject's cerebral cortex with around 100,000 microscopic sensors. A wireless unit would power the submillimeter-size sensors, known as "neurograins," with the unit also serving as a hub for data translation and transmission, according to the statement.
Another proposal will explore linking neurons in the visual cortex to a high-definition artificial retina inspired by camera designs, DARPA representatives said.
Industry partners will assist with building prototypes, but it will likely be years before any of these new technologies can proceed to human trials, DARPA said.
NESD's goal — to ultimately engage more than 1 million neurons to establish two-way communication systems between the brain and a computer — does sound daunting, Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD program manager, admitted in the DARPA statement. However, once you consider that the human brain contains approximately 86 billion neurons, engaging 1 million neurons seems like a more reasonable goal, Alveda added.
Those tens of billions of neurons in the brain are linked to a roster of complex functions that scientists are just beginning to unravel, and much remains to be discovered about how the brain operates, Alveda noted.
"But if we're successful in delivering rich sensory signals directly to the brain, NESD will lay a broad foundation for new neurological therapies," he said in the statement.
Original article on Live Science.
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Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.