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Researchers receive grant to record neural activity

DARPA grant to fund potential medical solutions to physical injury, lost hearing

Funded by a grant of up to $19 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the University will lead an international team of scientists to create an implantable wireless brain interface system. The project aims to develop a system able to record neural activity at an unprecedented level for potential medical applications.

“We’re trying to build better ways of interfacing computers to the human brain so that we can help restore lost movement for people who have an injury, or lost vision or hearing,” said Lawrence Larson, dean of engineering and co-investigator of the project. “To do this, we have to be able to track the activity of many regions in the brain.”

The funding is coming from DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design program, which aims to develop interfaces that allow “data transfer between the brain and electronics” and which may one day become “capable of mitigating the effects of injury and disease,” according to its website.

In addition to members of the University, the team includes researchers from the University of California at San Diego, the University of California at Berkeley, Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford University, Qualcomm, the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and IMEC, an international research group based in Belgium.

The funding will be distributed to the team over four years. “At the end of the four years, our goal is to have functional, implantable procedures and devices that have been tested in animals and (are) ready to go through FDA testing, so that (they) can used in humans,” said Farah Laiswalla, a senior research associate in engineering at the University.

Laiwalla also mentioned the unprecedented scale of this project, in terms of the large scope of the brain that is being analyzed. “What is novel about this project is that instead of building a single, monolithic implant, which is something that we’ve done in the past, (it) is trying to build a distributed network, almost like an internet type of network approach to implants in the brain,” she said.

One of the key parts of this project is the development of very small, wireless devices the researchers call neurograins. “These tiny sensors have all the electronics you need and their own wireless link. We plan to put hundreds of thousands of these into the brain,” Laiwalla said.

The wireless system will be able to both record and stimulate neural activity through electrical signals, according to a University press release. This will allow researchers to better understand how the brain reads signals from the world. Researchers hope that this knowledge may one day be applied for medical purposes.

“We can transmit data from the outside world into the neurograins that stimulate the neurons. That could potentially project sound or image to those who are deaf or blind,” said Vincent Leung, technical director of the Circuits Labs at UC San Diego, where some of the project’s technologies will be tested. The process could also “potentially help a paralyzed person move their prosthetic arms just by thinking. This is the bidirectional communication that is an important part of this project.”

“This project is very ambitious,” Larson said. This grant allows researchers from many different countries and disciplines to work together to better understand singaling activity in the brain, potentially changing the lives of millions of people in the world who have lost limbs. “We hope that this technology will enable this to happen in the future, and we hope that we, through this project, will have had made a significant step forward for these healing types of applications,” Larson added.


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