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Six DARPA-funded research teams aim at revolutionizing noninvasive brain-machine interfaces

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DARPA Funds Ambi­tious Brain-Machine Inter­face Pro­gram (IEEE Spec­trum):

DARPA’s Next-Gen­er­a­tion Non­sur­gi­cal Neu­rotech­nol­o­gy (N3) pro­gram has award­ed fund­ing to six groups attempt­ing to build brain-machine inter­faces that match the per­for­mance of implant­ed elec­trodes but with no surgery what­so­ev­er.

By sim­ply pop­ping on a hel­met or head­set, sol­diers could con­ceiv­ably com­mand con­trol cen­ters with­out touch­ing a key­board; fly drones intu­itive­ly with a thought; even feel intru­sions into a secure net­work. While the tech sounds futur­is­tic, DARPA wants to get it done in four years … The N3 pro­gram fits right into DARPA’s high-risk, high-reward bio­med­ical tech port­fo­lio, includ­ing pro­grams in elec­tric med­i­cine, brain implants and elec­tri­cal brain train­ing. And the U.S. defense R&D agency is throw­ing big mon­ey at the pro­gram: Though a DARPA spokesper­son declined to com­ment on the amount of fund­ing, two of the win­ning teams are report­ing eye-pop­ping grants of $19.48 mil­lion and $18 mil­lion.

Plen­ty of non­in­va­sive neu­rotech­nolo­gies already exist, but not at the res­o­lu­tion nec­es­sary to yield high-per­for­mance wear­able devices for nation­al secu­ri­ty appli­ca­tions, says N3 pro­gram man­ag­er Al Emon­di of DARPA’s Bio­log­i­cal Tech­nolo­gies Office…“This is unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry for DARPA, and the next step in brain-machine inter­faces,” says Emon­di. “If we’re suc­cess­ful in some of these technologies…that’s a whole new ecosys­tem that doesn’t exist right now.”

About the N3 program:

Six paths to the non­sur­gi­cal future of brain-machine inter­faces (DARPA):

Update: DARPA has award­ed fund­ing to six orga­ni­za­tions to sup­port the Next-Gen­er­a­tion Non­sur­gi­cal Neu­rotech­nol­o­gy (N3) pro­gram, first announced in March 2018. Bat­telle Memo­r­i­al Insti­tute, Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty, Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty Applied Physics Lab­o­ra­to­ry, Palo Alto Research Cen­ter (PARC), Rice Uni­ver­si­ty, and Tele­dyne Sci­en­tif­ic are lead­ing mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary teams to devel­op high-res­o­lu­tion, bidi­rec­tion­al brain-machine inter­faces for use by able-bod­ied ser­vice mem­bers.

The N3 teams are pur­su­ing a range of approach­es that use optics, acoustics, and elec­tro­mag­net­ics to record neur­al activ­i­ty and/or send sig­nals back to the brain at high speed and res­o­lu­tion. The research is split between two tracks. Teams are pur­su­ing either com­plete­ly non­in­va­sive inter­faces that are entire­ly exter­nal to the body or minute­ly inva­sive inter­face sys­tems that include nan­otrans­duc­ers that can be tem­porar­i­ly and non­sur­gi­cal­ly deliv­ered to the brain to improve sig­nal res­o­lu­tion.

  • The Bat­telle team, under prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor Dr. Gau­rav Shar­ma, aims to devel­op a minute­ly inva­sive inter­face sys­tem that pairs an exter­nal trans­ceiv­er with elec­tro­mag­net­ic nan­otrans­duc­ers that are non­sur­gi­cal­ly deliv­ered to neu­rons of inter­est. The nan­otrans­duc­ers would con­vert elec­tri­cal sig­nals from the neu­rons into mag­net­ic sig­nals that can be record­ed and processed by the exter­nal trans­ceiv­er, and vice ver­sa, to enable bidi­rec­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion.
  • The Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty team, under prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor Dr. Pulk­it Grover, aims to devel­op a com­plete­ly non­in­va­sive device that uses an acous­to-opti­cal approach to record from the brain and inter­fer­ing elec­tri­cal fields to write to spe­cif­ic neu­rons. The team will use ultra­sound waves to guide light into and out of the brain to detect neur­al activ­i­ty. The team’s write approach exploits the non-lin­ear response of neu­rons to elec­tric fields to enable local­ized stim­u­la­tion of spe­cif­ic cell types.
  • The Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty Applied Physics Lab­o­ra­to­ry team, under prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor Dr. David Blod­gett, aims to devel­op a com­plete­ly non­in­va­sive, coher­ent opti­cal sys­tem for record­ing from the brain. The sys­tem will direct­ly mea­sure opti­cal path-length changes in neur­al tis­sue that cor­re­late with neur­al activ­i­ty.
  • The PARC team, under prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor Dr. Krish­nan Thya­gara­jan, aims to devel­op a com­plete­ly non­in­va­sive acous­to-mag­net­ic device for writ­ing to the brain. Their approach pairs ultra­sound waves with mag­net­ic fields to gen­er­ate local­ized elec­tric cur­rents for neu­ro­mod­u­la­tion. The hybrid approach offers the poten­tial for local­ized neu­ro­mod­u­la­tion deep­er in the brain.
  • The Rice Uni­ver­si­ty team, under prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor Dr. Jacob Robin­son, aims to devel­op a minute­ly inva­sive, bidi­rec­tion­al sys­tem for record­ing from and writ­ing to the brain. For the record­ing func­tion, the inter­face will use dif­fuse opti­cal tomog­ra­phy to infer neur­al activ­i­ty by mea­sur­ing light scat­ter­ing in neur­al tis­sue. To enable the write func­tion, the team will use a mag­ne­to-genet­ic approach to make neu­rons sen­si­tive to mag­net­ic fields.
  • The Tele­dyne team, under prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor Dr. Patrick Con­nol­ly, aims to devel­op a com­plete­ly non­in­va­sive, inte­grat­ed device that uses micro opti­cal­ly pumped mag­ne­tome­ters to detect small, local­ized mag­net­ic fields that cor­re­late with neur­al activ­i­ty. The team will use focused ultra­sound for writ­ing to neu­rons.

The News in Context:

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