DARPA on the Brain

Neuron News from DPR has highlighted some interesting activity from DARPA in the past (read more) with its involvement in neurological research and technology developments. With the “Grand Challenge” introduced in April 2013 by the Obama administration called the BRAIN Initiative (“Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies”), we clearly noticed that half of the dedicated $100 million in funds were to be delegated to future work out of DARPA. Now, months later, the military research branch has finally released two open calls for grant applications to spread around some of these monies to more organizations. 

DARPA-SUBNET_1The first program call is for a project called SUBNETS (“Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies”), which is searching for new technologies that will allow near real-time quantitative measurements of brain activity to then control implanted neural stimulation devices. Out of context, this might sound like an attempt at developing controllable cyborgs, but the focus of this specific proposal is to create a health care advancement that will support the recovery and repair of U.S. service members who have experienced neurological injuries and neuropsychological illness from war-time activities. According to the proposal, ten percent of veterans today are receiving mental health care or substance abuse counseling from the VA. With implantable devices controlled by real-time recording and analysis as proposed by SUBNETS, neuropsychiatry will take a major leap beyond lying on the couch and talking it out with a trained professional with a notepad. 

The second call from DARPA is called RAM (“Restoring Active Memory”) and continues in the vein of supporting veterans with brain injuries. Here, the goal is to develop innovative neurotechnologies that utilize an understanding of the neural encoding of memories — something that is not yet even remotely understood — to recover memory after brain injury. The anticipation is to have an implantable device that clicks on to recover the lost memories. 

RAM seems to carry a rather far-reaching goal that could only be successful with a complete understanding of the structural and functional neural correlations of a human being’s memory. The added difficulty is that if it is assumed that memories are directly encoded in the specific architecture of neuron connections and the resulting functional relationships, then a traumatic brain injury could be defined as an event that directly destroys these connections. So to recover lost memories, one might expect that a digital “brain dump” would be necessary to be stored (securely in the cloud?) before a soldier heads off to battle. 

With both the SUBNETS and RAM programs, exciting new technologies and advancements might be possible. However, in the descriptions above there are a plethora of ethical, security, and privacy issues left unmentioned only for the reader to speculate upon. To address these sorts of issues that always exist on the leading edge of technological developments, DARPA has also established an Ethical, Legal and Social Implications Panel composed of academics, medical ethicists, clinicians, and researchers to advise and guide the new programs as well as provide some form of independent oversight during their progress.


DARPA Aims to Rebuild BrainsScience 29 November 2013 Vol. 342 no. 6162 pp. 1029-1030 



Wireless Control of the Brain

When our peripheral nerves fire anywhere in our body’s extremity… they are usually trying to tell our brain something rather important: “Hey, that stove top is a little too hot for your finger tips… pull away!” or, “I think that’s kind of sharp… it might be a nail… it is! it is a nail!… step away!”

While this extended network of vital warning zaps to our brain are not enjoyable as we sense them as intense pain, the function is critical to our survival and helps keep us from doing stupid things and warn us about problems that our visual perception might be missing. However, what if these warning zaps misfire? And, what if they keep misfiring constantly? They might be trying to tell us that something is wrong… possibly internally… and sure this might be useful, but what if you can’t do anything to fix the problem and they just keep on zapping?

This ongoing misfiring of localized sections in the peripheral nervous system is so much more than an annoyance, and is a serious and painful disorder for millions of humans. [ Read more about Peripheral Nerve Disorders ] One major problem in particular is peripheral neuropathy, where actual damage has occurred to the peripheral nerves. Although damage to these nerves certainly would be problematic — maybe you don’t notice that sharp nail pressing into your heel as quickly as you once did — but, the chronic problem is the damaged nerves seem to incessantly scream at the brain like a teenager who just learned she can’t stay out past midnight with her friends.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just tell those nerves to shut up and go to bed?

This is an important example of chronic pain that so many people suffer continuously through their day-to-day activities. Drugs have been used to combat the screaming nerves, but mostly measure up to over-the-counter pain medications. To date, there has been no systematic treatment developed, although there are several dedicated research centers located throughout the United States working on the problem.

Now, there is very early stage research on a new technological approach to quieting the broken nerves. A Dallas, TX-based startup called MicroTransponder is applying a very popular technology for powering and controlling electrical devices wirelessly. This technique, called “RFID” (radio-frequency identification), is a device that detects a remote radio signal to activate its internal circuitry to perform some function. The technology is already embedded in our culture, from automated highway toll collection (EZPass) to product tracking in inventory systems and even to checking in your library book.

For this application of remote neural stimulation, the idea is to inject tiny RFID devices to float around the damaged fingers or toes. When the nerve start to scream, an external signal generator will send out a radio-frequency message to the internal devices which will then power up and provide a polite zap back to the nerve endings. The anticipation is that applying just the right pattern of miniature jolts will quiet the screaming teenager and provide some relief to the 20 million Americans suffering today.

“Tiny Implants for Treating Chronic Pain” :: Technology Review :: May 15, 2009 :: [ READ ]

The Neuropathy Association [ VISIT ]

Build a Brain Workshop in the EU

Our brain is like a uniquely powerful computer. It’s in a class of technology that no typical serial or parallel processor today can replicate. Many scientists have tried to develop computer code that attempts to mimic through simulations, such as the current Blue Brain Project, but the computing power for these approaches are becoming immense.

Alternatively, a large European Union collaboration called FACETS has been working on the design, fabrication, and implementation of a new kind of transistor-based computer chip that structurally mimics the neural networks of the human brain.

FACETS project (

The goal of the project is to create a unique computing architecture that uses what we already know of the structure of the human brain as a foundational design concept. The anticipation is that by creating this new hardware, we might gain a significant advancement in computational technology that might keep us moving upward along the classical Moore’s Law path even after traditional transistor-based architectures reach their lowest physical size limit.

The current scale of these brain-like computer chips are far from the level of the interconnectivity of the human brain. At this time, they have developed chips with around 200,000 transistor-styled “neurons” utilizing 50 million mimicking “synapses”. This is a far cry from the human brain’s nearly 100 billion neurons and countless synapses.

This project is not necessarily trying to build a silicon brain… but is wisely trying to take the structural concept of the human brain and apply it to a new hard-wired approach to develop the next-next-next generation of desktop computers.

“Building a Brain on a Silicon Chip” :: Technology Review Published by MIT :: March 25, 2009 :: [ READ ]

Learn more about FACETS (Fast Analog Computing with Emergent Transient States) [ VISIT ]

FACETS Project Presentation (pdf) [ VIEW ]

Non-invasive Direct Electrical Recording of the Brain

The terminology “non-invasive” and “direct recording” have never been a happy couple in neurotechnology because it is so tough to literally touch the brain–a goopy ball of mostly water–with electrodes without inflicting potentially debilitating and paralyzing damage to the host.

Until recently…

Researchers from the Wadsworth Center have developed a unique thin-film electrode membrane that cleverly “sticks and grabs” to the squishy surface of the brain instead of exerting enough force to penetrate. The technology can be immediately used to improve current techniques of electrocorticography (ECoG), which is used by brain surgeons to map out functional areas in the brain to avoid during surgery. The ECoG information provides much more detailed spacial maps for the corresponding electroencephalography (EEG) recordings taken purely non-invasively through the skull.

By studying the electrical activity for specific motion, auditory responses, or visual responses during these open-brain recording sessions, the researchers hope to learn more about the language of the brain in an attempt to develop future implantable electrode devices to control integrated prosthetic systems.

There is still a long way to go with this approach, however. Even though the ECoG method is taken directly at the surface of the brain, this still represents a significant averaging of neural activity. It is yet to be determined if this level of measurement is specific enough to represent exact functional responses between the brain and the body (or external prosthetic device). But, it is certainly an important technological leap that can lead to new information on understanding brain function and how to directly communicate with our networked neurons.

“Less-Invasive Brain Interfaces” :: Technology Review by MIT :: November 21, 2008 :: [READ]


Nanotechnology Meets Neurotechnology

Nanotechnology will be the key field of research that will bridge future gaps between advancements in neurological control and interfaces that connect our own bodies to our own brains in new and exciting ways.

Vivek Maheshwari and Ravi Saraf recently wrote a thorough review of advances from nanotechnology in the developments of artificial “skins” that can mimic the sensitive electrical responses of the human sensation of touch. Michael Berger from Nanowerk provides a nice overview of the published review to help guide you through this important research.

The exciting next step, then, is to integrate the nano-skin with the neuro-device through a direct functional link between living neurons in an embedded structure that connects the electrical activity of the artificial skin to the brain in a meaningful way.

“Nanotechnology skin to rival human touch” :: Nanowerk :: September 30, 2008 [ READ ]

“Tactile Devices To Sense Touch on a Par with a Human Finger” :: Wiley InterScience Abstract (read) :: Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2008, 47, 7808 – 7826 :: [ READ REVIEW ARTICLE PDF ]

Re-developing Hearing with Neural Network Implants

A research team from the Yonsei University College of Medicine, including Dr. Choi Jae Young, have recently completed a neural implant surgery on a young female patient to help her regain lost hearing. Although the girl’s brain functions normally, she has a damaged nerve that transmits auditory signals from her ear to her brain stem.

The implanted device converts sound into digital signal and transmits this to the brain stem and further processing in the brain. The details of the work is not clear in the posted media report below, and no published research with the results has yet been found by Neuron News (but, we’ll post updates as soon as possible).

Presumably, the electrical information transmitted by the computer chip implant is being received by the brain, but the child’s brain must first train itself to interpret the signals into meaningful patterns. The girl may have never before heard sound–let alone process and interpret sound–so, this work might also be an extremely interesting observation of how well the brain can take new electrical signals and integrate them successfully into a brain state that might be considered “normal” to another human who was born with complete hearing capabilities.

Will the girl hear differently, in some way, than other humans? Will we ever be able to determine if she is interpreting sounds in different ways, even if her brain figures out a way to process the signals and still interact with its environment “normally”?

“Doctors Use Artificial Network to Help Hearing Impaired” :: Arirang News IT/Science :: July 22, 2008 :: [ READ ]

Last updated August 7, 2022