22nd January 2016
Brain implant will connect a million neurons with superfast bandwidth
A neural interface being created by the United States military aims to greatly improve the resolution and connection speed between biological and non-biological matter.
The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – a branch of the U.S. military – has announced a new research and development program known as Neural Engineering System Design (NESD). This aims to create a fully implantable neural interface able to provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world.
The interface would serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. A communications link would be achieved in a biocompatible device no larger than a cubic centimetre. This could lead to breakthrough treatments for a number of brain-related illnesses, as well as providing new insights into possible future upgrades for aspiring transhumanists.
“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” says Phillip Alvelda, program manager. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”
Among NESD’s potential applications are devices that could help restore sight or hearing, by feeding digital auditory or visual information into the brain at a resolution and experiential quality far higher than is possible with current technology.
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 communicate clearly and individually with any of up to one million neurons in a given region of the brain.
To achieve these ambitious goals and ensure the technology is practical outside of a research setting, DARPA will integrate and work in parallel with numerous areas of science and technology – 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 transcode high-definition sensory information between electronic and cortical neuron representations and then compress and represent the data with minimal loss.
The NESD program aims to recruit a diverse roster of leading industry stakeholders willing to offer state-of-the-art prototyping, manufacturing services and intellectual property. In later phases of the program, these partners could help transition the resulting technologies into commercial applications. DARPA will invest up to $60 million in the NESD program between now and 2020.