UC Berkeley has been awarded $21.6 million to help federal scientists develop an implantable system to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world.
This system, as envisioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, would convert the electrochemical signaling used by neurons in the brain into the “ones” and “zeros” that are the language of information technology — advancing our understanding of the neural underpinnings of vision, hearing, and speech.
By increasing the ability of our technologies to engage with neurons, scientists hope to enable “rich two-way communication with the brain at a scale that will help deepen our understanding of that organ’s underlying biology, complexity, and function,” said Phillip Alvelda, manager of DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design program, in a prepared statement
UC Berkeley’s four-year contract is one of six awarded a contract by DARPA. Funded by former President Barack Obama’s 2013 BRAIN Initiative, DARPA aims to develop implantable, biocompatible “neural interfaces” that can compensate for visual or hearing deficits.
The specific mission of the Berkeley team, led by professor of molecular and cell biology Ehud Isacoff, is to create a window into the brain through which researchers – and eventually physicians – can monitor and activate thousands to millions of individual neurons using light.
While the Berkeley team ultimately hopes to build a device for use in humans, its plan during the four-year funding period is to create a prototype to read and write to the brains of fish and mice, where neural activity and behavior can be monitored and controlled simultaneously. The zebrafish larvae are transparent; the mice will have a transparent window in the skull.
The researchers’ goal is to read from a million individual neurons and simultaneously stimulate 1,000 of them with single-cell accuracy, according to Berkeley spokesman Robert Sanders.
This would be a first step toward therapies, he said. For instance, it might be possible to replace a damaged eye with a device that directly talks to the visual part of the cerebral cortex. Or perhaps a touch sensation could be relayed from an artificial limb to the brain to help an amputee control an artificial limb.
“The ability to talk to the brain has the incredible potential to help compensate for neurological damage caused by degenerative diseases or injury,” said project leader Isacoff, director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, in a prepared statement.
“By encoding perceptions into the human cortex,” he said, “you could allow the blind to see or the paralyzed to feel touch.”
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