Campus’s Isacoff Lab receives DARPA funding to research neural implants

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The campus’s Isacoff Lab has been granted about $21 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, for research into neural implants.

Isacoff’s funding, distributed over the course of four years, is part of a larger project from DARPA granting a total of about $65 million to labs in the United States and France.

The grant will go towards Neural Engineering System Design, or NESD — a program that looks to create neural implants to aid in sensory restoration and possibly allow humans to communicate directly with technology using their brains.

Campus professor Ehud Isacoff will lead a group of eight UC Berkeley labs, a lab at the Paris Descartes University and the Argonne National Lab for their NESD project “Million Neuron Decoding/Encoding Cortical Modem.”

The labs led by Isacoff will “develop a novel miniaturized microscope that can detect and modulate the activity of up to a million neurons at a time in the cerebral cortex,” according to DARPA.

Brown University, Columbia University, Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation) in Paris, France, the John B. Pierce Laboratory in Connecticut and Paradromics Inc, a company out of San Jose, will also receive part of the grant.

Four of the six labs will focus on vision, while the other two will work on hearing and speech.

The UC Berkeley team is tasked with creating quantitative encoding models in order to predict neuron responses to visual and tactile stimuli. They will then use those predictions to create photo-simulation patterns. This could help people regain eyesight or control an artificial limb using their minds.

Bionics Institute, Boston Micromachines Corporation, Allen Institute for Brain Science and other subcontractors will help the project by providing funds for design assistance, prototyping and fabrication.

“Significant technical challenges lie ahead, 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,” said program director Phillip Alvelda in the press release.

The project is currently in its early phases, though prototypes will start being made immediately. According to Isacoff animals will be used for testing — namely the transparent zebrafish, as soon as they are available. Testing the prototypes on humans will require FDA approval, and therefore will occur later on.

“(It’s) important to realize that (the) device will not be implanted, but will look down through the surface of the brain — through a window in the skull, without coming into direct contact with the brain,” Isacoff said in an email.

NESD will focus on making fundamental breakthroughs in neuroscience and technology by testing those advances on animals and cultured cells. The second phase will focus on miniaturizing and integrating the model, according to the press release.

DARPA plans to work with biomedical ethics experts to minimize any potential risks and “maximize societal value.”

Contact Atira Nair at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @atirastar.