U.S. Military Gives Out $65 Million to Develop Brain Implants That Could Treat Blindness and Deafness

A human brain immersed in formaldehyde is displayed at the Museum of Neuropathology in Lima, Peru, on November 16, 2016. An agency of the U.S. military is funding projects to develop brain implants that could treat people who have lost the use of their senses, including blind and deaf people. ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty

The quest to create a real link between machines and human brains has potentially groundbreaking consequences.

If high-functioning implants can be developed to link human brains with computers, people who have gone blind or deaf could possibly receive sensory information that would restore some, if not all, of their lost capabilities. Those with prosthetic limbs may be able to use them as if they were an integrated part of the body.

An agency of the U.S. military announced Monday that it was stepping up its investment and pursuit of this goal. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced Monday that contracts worth a total of $65 million had been distributed to five research organizations and one company working to build brain implants that could revolutionize treatment of people who have lost one or more of their senses.

Four of the projects will focus on vision; the other two will center around different aspects of speech and hearing. At the end of the four-year program, DARPA hopes to have prototypes of devices that can transmit information between the brain and computers, though it is unlikely these would be used in a clinical or commercial sense within that timeframe.

Ultimately, the goal is to decode sensory information that humans receive through their eyes, ears and other senses. This information has to be converted into a series of ones and zeros—known as binary code—that can be read by a computer.

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This process is already possible, but DARPA wants to drastically increase the speed at which sensory information can be read by a machine. The best brain implants currently available—such as those that help paralyzed people control robotic limbs—receive information from several hundred neurons in the body's nervous system. DARPA wants to increase that to engaging 1 million neurons in parallel.

But even then, it'll still be much slower than a human brain. "A million neurons represents a miniscule percentage of the 86 billion neurons in the human brain. Its deeper complexities are going to remain a mystery for some time to come," said Phillip Alvelda, the founding program manager of NESD.

The projects involve a variety of techniques that aim to treat sensory loss. One at Columbia University in New York envisages building a prosthetic, flexible circuit that could be laid over the brain. The device would use electrodes to "listen" to neurons deep in the visual cortex—the part of the brain that processes visual information—and stimulate those neurons to create a picture for people with impaired vision. The subject would wear a small device known as a transceiver on their head that would help process the information.

Another project by Paradromics, a California-based technology firm, aims to develop a device that would penetrate into the brain with multiple tiny electrodes to record and stimulate specific neurons. The ultimate goal would be to create a device that could help restore speech for deaf or mute people.

Obama and quadriplegic with brain implant
U.S. President Barack Obama gives a fist-bump to a robotic arm operated by Nathan Copeland, a quadriplegic brain implant patient who can experience the sensation of touch and control a remote robotic arm with his brain, during a tour of the innovation projects at the White House Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, U.S. October 13, 2016. Carlos Barria/Reuters

DARPA has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in neurotechnology—the intersection between brain function and digital technology—in projects that aim to treat mental illness or post-traumatic stress suffered by soldiers. But the NESD program has broader implications and constitutes "the groundwork for a future in which brain interface technologies will transform how people live and work," said Justin Sanchez, the head of DARPA's Biological Technologies team.

But while the projects hold great potential for the future, the developers themselves are quick to add a note of realism. "It will be a long time before medical science allows us to grow new eyes or repair a broken spinal cord, but by linking brains to computers it will be possible to leverage digital devices to restore the functionality of damaged body parts," Matthew Angle, the head of Paradromics, told Gizmodo.

The funding is part of DARPA's Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, launched in January 2016, which aims to develop "an implantable system able to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world." NESD is one of multiple programs inaugurated under the Obama administration's BRAIN Initiative, which was announced in 2013.