has for years successfully demonstrated brain-computer interface (BCI)
projects—just look at NeuroLife®,
which has enabled a quadriplegic man to move his hand again using his
thoughts. Now, the government’s forward-thinking Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded a contract to
a Battelle-led team that pushes researchers into the realm of what was
once considered science fiction.
Imagine this: A soldier puts on a helmet and uses his or her thoughts
alone to control multiple unmanned vehicles or a bomb disposal robot.
That’s the basis for this effort for DARPA’s Next-Generation
Non-Surgical Neurotechnology (N3) program. The N3
program seeks development of high-performance, bi-directional
brain-machine interfaces for able-bodied service members. Most of the
current BCI research, including Battelle’s NeuroLife technology, focuses
on helping people with disabilities who must undergo invasive implant
procedures, including brain surgery, to enable a BCI that can restore
lost function. For the next BCI leap, in which the technology can be
used by healthy military service members, it’s imperative to find
lower-risk and less-invasive options.
It’s a path Battelle Senior Research Scientist Gaurav Sharma has already
begun to navigate. Heavily involved for years with the NeuroLife
project, Sharma began to develop ideas for non-surgical BCI options. The
DARPA N3 program provides the opportunity to further develop
Battelle’s N3 concept for a minimally invasive neural
interface system, called BrainSTORMS (Brain System to Transmit Or
Receive Magnetoelectric Signals), involves the development of a novel
nanotransducer that could be temporarily introduced into the body via
injection and then directed to a specific area of the brain to help
complete a task through communication with a helmet-based transceiver.
Upon completion, the nanotransducer will be magnetically guided out of
the brain and into the bloodstream to be processed out of the body.
The nanotransducer would use magnetoelectric nanoparticles to establish
a bi-directional communication channel with the brain. Neurons in the
brain operate through electrical signals. The magnetic core of the
nanotransducers would convert the neural electrical signals into
magnetic ones that would be sent through the skull to the helmet-based
transceiver worn by the user. The helmet transceiver could also send
magnetic signals back to the nanotransducers where they would be
converted to electrical impulses capable of being processed by the
neurons, enabling two-way communication to and from the brain.
“This is one of the most exciting and challenging projects I have worked
on,” said Sharma. “With BrainSTORMS, we will again be pushing the limits
engineering and physics. If successful, this technology would not only
provide a safe and efficient way to facilitate human machine
interactions, but also has the potential to revolutionize the study of
the nervous system.”
Sharma’s experience and contacts in the BCI field are key to the
effort’s success. Battelle will apply its expertise in neural decoding,
artificial intelligence, hardware engineering, in vitro
electrophysiology and systems integration to combine the various aspects
of the project. But all-stars were needed to complete the team. “We knew
we needed a strong team if we wanted to succeed in this mission,” said
Sharma. “Our collaborators are experts in important areas for the
Sakhrat Khizroev at the University
of Miami will lead nanoparticle synthesis and characterization.
Together with Ping Liang, Khizroev has pioneered magnetoelectric
nanotransducers for medical applications. Cellular
Nanomed Inc., a California-based small business led by Liang, will
develop the external transceiver technology. Liang and Khizroev have
also worked together on smart array technologies for the read and write
of brain-computer interface signals.
Doug Weber at the University
of Pittsburgh will lead the preclinical safety and efficacy studies,
bringing decades of experience in neural engineering research and
development. His team has led several projects focused on developing
closed-loop neurotechnology systems that enable people to control and
feel prosthetic limbs through direct connections to the nervous system.
He and his colleagues are currently managing multiple first-in-human
trials of novel neurotechnology systems at the University of Pittsburgh.
Before the end of the project, Andy McKinley and Justin Estepp at the Air
Force Research Laboratory will conduct human demonstration studies.
McKinley is a leader in the use of brain stimulation technologies for
cognitive performance optimization.
Battelle recently began the first phase of the program with $2 million
in funding to demonstrate the core concept of the technology. If the
team’s concept proves successful, Battelle will receive additional
funding for the second and third phases of the program. The full
contract is worth approximately $20 million over four years for the
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solving what matters most. At major technology centers and national
laboratories around the world, Battelle conducts research and
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and supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)
education. For more information, visit www.battelle.org.