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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has granted contracts to five research groups and one San Jose-based company to lead the charge in developing an advanced “brain modem” that could help restore a person’s senses such as sight or hearing.

DARPA will distribute a total of $65 million over four years to the research teams, which include Brown University, Columbia University, the Seeing and Hearing Foundation, John B. Pierce Laboratory, University of California Berkeley and Paradromics, Inc.

The ambitious project is part of DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, which was established in January 2016. The mission of NESD is to develop an implantable system that provides precision communication between the brain and the digital world.

“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,” DARPA wrote in a release.

Four of the teams will be devoted to vision therapies, and two will focus on aspects of hearing and speech. They will all work to complete both fundamental research and develop the component technologies required to meet NESD’s vision.

According to DARPA, the project’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. By the end of the four years, the hope is to have functioning prototypes of the implantable systems.

The general premise of the brain-computer interface is to be able to convert sensory information received through human eyes and ears into binary code that can be read by a computer.

Interfaces based on a similar concept do exist, but current neural implants receive sensory information from just hundreds of neurons. DARPA intends to advance the technology and increase processing speed by engaging at least 1 million neurons. The brain is believed to have about 86 billion neurons.

“By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than 1 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,” said Phillip Alvelda, founding NESD program manager.

If successful, one day people who have lost one or more of their senses could have a computer send commands directly to the areas of the brain that process sensory information to help restore what they have lost. It could also potentially be applied to prosthetic limbs.

Some of the disciplines represented in the research teams are neuroscience, systems engineering, computer science, wireless communications and photonics, among others.

In addition to overcoming engineering-oriented hardware, biocompatibility and communication challenges, the teams must also develop advanced mathematical and neuro-computation techniques to decode and encode neural data and compress those troves of information so they are tractable within the available bandwidth and power constraints, according to DARPA.

More information on each group’s proposed systems can be found here.

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