DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program has awarded funding to six groups attempting to build brain-machine interfaces that match the performance of implanted electrodes but with no surgery whatsoever.
By simply popping on a helmet or headset, soldiers could conceivably command control centers without touching a keyboard; fly drones intuitively with a thought; even feel intrusions into a secure network. While the tech sounds futuristic, DARPA wants to get it done in four years.
“It’s an aggressive timeline,” says Krishnan Thyagarajan, a research scientist at PARC and principal investigator of one of the N3-funded projects. “But I think the idea of any such program is to really challenge the community to push the limits and accelerate things which are already brewing. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s not impossible.”
The N3 program fits right into DARPA’s high-risk, high-reward biomedical tech portfolio, including programs in electric medicine, brain implants and electrical brain training. And the U.S. defense R&D agency is throwing big money at the program: Though a DARPA spokesperson declined to comment on the amount of funding, two of the winning teams are reporting eye-popping grants of $19.48 million and $18 million.
Plenty of noninvasive neurotechnologies already exist, but not at the resolution necessary to yield high-performance wearable devices for national security applications, says N3 program manager Al Emondi of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office.
Following a call for applications back in March, a review panel narrowed the pool to six teams across industry and academia, Emondi told IEEE Spectrum. The teams are experimenting with different combinations of magnetic fields, electric fields, acoustic fields (ultrasound) and light. “You can combine all these approaches in different, unique and novel ways,” says Emondi. What the program hopes to discover, he adds, is which combinations can record brain activity and communicate back to the brain with the greatest speed and resolution.
Specifically, the program is seeking technologies that can read and write to brain cells in just 50 milliseconds round-trip, and can interact with at least 16 locations in the brain at a resolution of 1 cubic millimeter (a space that encompasses thousands of neurons).
The four-year N3 program will consist of three phases, says Emondi. In the current phase 1, teams have one year to demonstrate the ability to read (record) and write to (stimulate) brain tissue through the skull. Teams that succeed will move to phase 2. Over the ensuing 18 months, those groups will have to develop working devices and test them on living animals. Any group left standing will proceed to phase 3—testing their device on humans.
Four of teams are developing totally noninvasive technologies. A team from Carnegie Mellon University, for example, is planning to use ultrasound waves to guide light into and out of the brain to detect neural activity. They plan to use interfering electrical fields to write to specific neurons.
The three other teams proposing non-invasive techniques include Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Thyagarajan’s team at PARC, and a team from Teledyne Technologies, a California-based industrial company.
The two remaining teams are developing what DARPA calls “minutely invasive” technologies which, as we described in September, require no incisions or surgery but may involve technology that is swallowed, sniffed, injected or absorbed into the human body in some way.
Rice University, for example, is developing a system that requires exposing neurons to a viral vector to deliver instructions for synthetic proteins that indicate when a neuron is active. Ohio-based technology company Battelle is developing a brain-machine interface that relies on magnetoelectric nanoparticles injected into the brain.
“This is uncharted territory for DARPA, and the next step in brain-machine interfaces,” says Emondi. “If we’re successful in some of these technologies…that’s a whole new ecosystem that doesn’t exist right now.”
A version of this post appears in the July 2019 print issue as “Wanted: Hi-Res, Surgery-Free Brain Interfaces.”
Megan is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts, specializing in the life sciences and biotechnology. She was previously a health columnist for the Boston Globe and has contributed to Newsweek, Scientific American, and Nature, among others. She is the co-author of a college biology textbook, “Biology Now,” published by W.W. Norton. Megan received an M.S. from the Graduate Program in Science Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a B.A. at Boston College, and worked as an educator at the Museum of Science, Boston.