DARPA looks to develop a high-res brain-computer interface

The NESD program aims to communicate with up to a millions neurons at a time, in a device the size of a couple of stacked nickels.

The idea of the brain being able to talk to a computer isn’t all that new, but military researchers are looking to take it to the next level, with e neural interface that can connect with up to 1 million neurons in a given region of the brain at a time.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Neural Engineering System Design, or NESD, program is looking to greatly expand the “signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth” between brain signals and the digital world of computers as a way to improve therapies for sight or hearing, according to a DARPA announcement. The agency is planning to spend up to $60 million over four years on the program, with the goal of developing a biocompatible device of about one cubic centimeter, which DARPA said is about the size of two nickels pressed together.

 Current neural interfaces, generally used with people who are paralyzed and need to communicate with their eyes, work with about 100 channels, each collecting signals from tens of thousands of neurons. That might sound like a lot, but the brain has millions of neurons and DARPA’s NESD plans to up that total to about a million, in order to raise the level of communication between brain and computer.

“Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” Phillip Alvelda, the NESD program manager, said in DARPA’s announcement. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”

The NESD program reflects other programs within the Defense Department, such as the Army Research Laboratory’s effort to create a brain-computer interface that could improve medical treatments as well as improve how soldiers communicate on the battlefield. It’s one of DARPA’s programs supporting President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, which include the HAPTIX program to develop a prosthetic arm with a sense of touch, the ElectRX program to aid the body’s healing process, and others,

As with ARL’s program, DARPA realizes that it has a long way to go before its program will be practical outside of a laboratory setting. The agency is looking to industry and academia for breakthroughs in areas including neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing, according to its announcement.

 The agency is holding a proposer’s day this week to get feedback on the possibilities.