If the human trials prove successful, it could greatly accelerate the development and adoption of brain-machine and brain-to-brain communication.
By STEPHEN JOHNSON
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently issued $8 million in follow-up funding to a team of neuroengineers developing brain-to-brain communication and brain-to-machine technology.
Imagine putting on a helmet that enables you to communicate with another person, or control a machine, with only your thoughts.
That’s what a team of neuroengineers at Rice University is working to develop. The team just received $8 million in follow-funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), having already conducted successful experiments on insects. Working alongside more than a dozen other research groups, the team plans to use the funds to conduct further tests on rodents and, potentially within two years, humans.
Of course, brain-machine interfaces aren’t new. For decades, researchers have been working to develop technologies that connect brains to machines, and brains to other brains. People are already benefiting from surgically implanted brain-machine interfaces, such as amputees who use mind-controlled arm prostheses.
But non-invasive brain-machine interfaces are more complex, and they’re currently not precise enough to be useful. That’s why the MOANA Project, which stands for “magnetic, optical and acoustic neural access,” aims to create an effective and noninvasive interface. To read and write brain activity, the interfaces uses light and magnetic fields, both of which can penetrate the skull.
In previous experiments, the researchers injected flies with nanoparticles and used ultrasound to guide the particles to specific neurons in the insects’ brains. This allowed the researchers to control the flies’ behavior. In more recent experiments, the team tested whether MOANA technology could transmit signals from brain to brain.
“We spent the last year trying to see if the physics works, if we could actually transmit enough information through a skull to detect and stimulate activity in brain cells grown in a dish,” Jacob Robinson, lead investigator on the MOANA Project at Rice University, told the university’s Office of Public Affairs.
“What we’ve shown is that there is promise. With the little bit of light that we are able to collect through the skull, we were able to reconstruct the activity of cells that were grown in the lab. Similarly, we showed we could stimulate lab-grown cells in a very precise way with magnetic fields and magnetic nanoparticles.”
If rodent experiments prove successful, the team plans to conduct trials on blind patients, who would be injected with nanoparticles. Using ultrasound waves, the researchers would guide the nanoparticles to the brain’s visual cortex.
There, the nanoparticles would be stimulated to activate specific neurons, which could potentially restore partial vision to the patients. For example, blind people may someday wear a camera that transmits visual data through the interface and enables them to see what the camera is looking at.
Brain-machine interfaces in the battlefield
But while restoring vision to the blind is the near-term goal, DARPA has additional applications in mind. The MOANA Project is part of the agency’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, first announced in March 2018.
The Rice University team and others have been working with DARPA to develop noninvasive brain-machine interfaces that soldiers could use to, say, control drones in the battlefield.
“If N3 is successful, we’ll end up with wearable neural interface systems that can communicate with the brain from a range of just a few millimeters, moving neurotechnology beyond the clinic and into practical use for national security,” Al Emondi, the N3 program manager, said in a statement.
“Just as service members put on protective and tactical gear in preparation for a mission, in the future they might put on a headset containing a neural interface, use the technology however it’s needed, then put the tool aside when the mission is complete.”
If the human trials prove successful, it could greatly accelerate the development and adoption of brain-machine and brain-to-brain communication. After all, even if other types of brain-machine interfaces are effective, it’s likely that many people won’t want to have a device implanted into their skull.
“That’s the big idea, this non-surgical interface,” Robinson said.
Originally published at Big think