With Elon Musk founding Neuralink and Facebook revealing its brain-computer interface research, 2017 is looking like it will be the year that mind-controlled computing research really gathers steam. No longer a fringe sci-fi concept, we're seeing big money being committed to serious research and now DARPA has revealed an investment of up to US$65 million across six projects as part of its new Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program.

DARPA initially announced the NESD program in early 2016 with a call out for proposals that would advance research into the development of a neural implant that is biocompatible and can enable two-way communication between the human brain and a computer.

The agency has now announced the six recipients of contracts awarded as part of the program, which include one private company and five research organizations. Phase I of the project is concentrating on breakthroughs in hardware, software and neuroscience that can subsequently be tested in animals and cultured cells.

The six projects awarded contracts cover a variety of different research areas and disciplines. Two of the projects are investigating hearing and speech. A team from Brown University plans to create a cerebral cortex implant that can decode the neural processing of speech, while a private company called Paradromics is developing a cortical interface that uses arrays of microwire electrodes to record and stimulate clusters of neurons.

The remaining four projects are examining the manipulation of vision-based processes in the brain. A Columbia University team aims to develop a non-penetrating bioelectric interface that can transmit stimuli directly into the visual cortex, while a University of California, Berkeley, team will work on producing a miniaturized microscope that can measure and stimulate up to one million neurons in the cerebral cortex at a single time.

Meanwhile, a team from Fondation Voir et Entendre will look to enable communication between an artificial retina worn over the eyes and neurons in the visial cortex using optogenetics. In a similar vein, the John B. Pierce Laboratory team aims to create an all-optical prosthesis for the visual cortex using neurons modified to bioluminesce and respond to optogenetic stimulation.

All the projects are broadly interested in finding ways to accurately decode neural data and develop techniques to artificially manipulate neurons to deliver detailed imagery and sound to the recipien. Practical outcomes could be anything from replacing someone's lost vision with a visual cortex prosthesis, to producing a brain-machine interface that allows one to control an artificial limb with their mind.

"Significant technical challenges lie ahead," says NESD program manager Richard Alvelda, "but the teams we assembled have formulated feasible plans to deliver coordinated breakthroughs across a range of disciplines and integrate those efforts into end-to-end systems."

After the first year, the program will move into Phase II, which will look towards human studies and pathways for regulatory approval. The NESD program also plans to connect researchers with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in order to evaluate regulatory aspects, such as safety and privacy, across all phases of development.

Source: DARPA