Next-generation brain tech lands Brown $19 million from DARPA

A research team led by Brown University professor Arto Nurmikko aims to develop a wireless neural prosthetic system that can help people who have lost sensory function due to injury or illness./ PHOTO COURTESY NURMIKKO LAB AT BROWN UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE – Brown University will lead an international team of engineers, neuroscientists and physicians in developing a wireless neural prosthetic system capable of recording and stimulating detailed neural activity and lead to new medical therapies, according to a statement made Monday by the school.

The ivy league university will receive $19 million in funding from the Neural Engineering System Design program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA, over four years. A school spokesperson said the base award for the first year of research is $4,245,199.

DARPA’s NESD fund invests in projects which, according to the release, are “able to provide advanced signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the brain and electronics.”

“What we’re developing is essentially a micro-scale wireless network in the brain enabling us to communicate directly with neurons on a scale that hasn’t previously been possible,” said Arto Nurmikko, Brown’s L. Herbert Ballou University professor of engineering and the project’s principal investigator, in a statement.

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He hopes the research will lead to “new therapeutic strategies involving neural stimulation of the brain.”

The team includes experts from IMEC, a Belgian microtechnology company; Massachusetts General Hospital; Stanford University; University of California Berkeley; University of California San Diego; Qualcomm, a mobile telecommunications firm; and the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva.

Four Brown faculty; Leigh Hochberg, a professor of engineering, David Borton, assistant professor of engineering, Larry Larson, Sorensen Family Dean of Engineering, and Wilson Truccolo, assistant professor of neuroscience, will be involved in the multi-year project.

It will create a “cortical intranet” made up of thousands of wireless neurograins, each the size of a grain of salt, which will be implanted on a participant’s cerebral cortex. Each neurograin will operate independently and communicate with the brain on the level of a single neuron. The neurograins will be orchestrated through wireless commands from a central communications hub in a thin electronic patch worn on the skin or implanted beneath it.

The project will give researchers a better understanding of how the brain processes stimuli from the outside world while also stimulating neural activity though “tiny electric pulses,” according to the release.

“We aim to be able to read out from the brain how it processes, for example, the difference between touching a smooth, soft surface and a rough, hard one and then apply microscale electrical stimulation directly to the brain to create proxies of such sensation,” Nurmikko said in a statement.

The DARPA-funded project builds on decades of neuroengineering research at the Brown Institute for Brain Science, the Warren Alpert Medical School and school of engineering.

“This new grant enables a group of outstanding Brown researchers to develop leading-edge technology and solve new computational problems in a quest to understand human brain functionality at a totally new scale,” said Jill Pipher, Brown’s vice president for research in prepared remarks.

Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey.

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