State-of-the-art brain communications systems that exist today are traditionally invasive, but allow for precise, high-quality connections to specific neurons or groups of neurons. They have been able to help patients following a brain injury or other illnesses and have improved quality of life while allowing control of a prosthetic limb. However, these traditional techniques are not appropriate for able-bodied people. That was the driving force behind creating brain-system communications without the need for surgery in the new Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology program.
“DARPA created N3 to pursue a path to a safe, portable neural interface system capable of reading from and writing to multiple points in the brain at once,” Al Emondi, program manager in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said in a press release. “High-resolution, nonsurgical neurotechnology has been elusive, but thanks to recent advances in biomedical engineering, neuroscience, synthetic biology and nanotechnology, we now believe the goal is attainable.”
There are other non-invasive neurotechnologies like the electroencephalogram and transcranial direct current stimulation, but they don’t offer the precision, signal resolution and portability needed for advanced applications in real world situations.
The researchers suggest that the challenge with creating nonsurgical brain-systems is overcoming the complex physics of scattering and weakening signals as they are passed through skin, bone and tissues.
“We’re asking multidisciplinary teams of researchers to construct approaches that enable precise interaction with very small areas of the brain, without sacrificing signal resolution or introducing unacceptable latency into the N3 system,” Emondi said.
Emondi also said that the only technologies they will consider using are ones that have a viable path toward eventual use in healthy human subjects.
The researchers hope that once they overcome the physics challenges and the barriers of crosstalk and low signal-to-noise ratio, the program will help them develop algorithms for decoding and encoding neural signals, combining sensing and stimulation into a single device, evaluating the safety and efficacy of the system in animal models and eventually testing the system in human volunteers.
Some of DARPA’s recent neurotechnology work includes creating a human memory prosthesis that implanted electrodes in the brain to restore memory function using a patient’s own neural codes.