Researchers have made groundbreaking strides in brain-computer interface (BCI) research, allowing paralyzed individuals to connect mind to machine and control robotic devices with their brains. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to tap into this breakthrough technology and develop a nonsurgical option that provides a new way for able-bodied individuals to interact with machines.
Through the Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, the agency selected Battelle and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to lead projects and awarded each institution funding totaling nearly $20 million over four years. Both projects include the University of Pittsburgh’s Douglas Weber, PhD, Robert Gaunt, PhD, and Jennifer Collinger, PhD. Dr. Weber is an affiliated faculty member of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine and associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh with secondary appointments in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition.
The most effective neural interfaces require surgery to implant electrodes into the brain, but DARPA’s N3 program aims to develop a high-resolution, portable neural interface system that is either completely noninvasive or only minutely invasive, making the technology accessible to a wider population of potential users. Most current BCI technology helps individuals with disabilities perform everyday tasks, but DARPA wants to progress the technology to able-bodied individuals, starting with military service members.
Dr. Weber directs the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs where his group has developed systems that enable individuals to control and feel prosthetic limbs through direct connections to the nervous system. He will lead the preclinical safety and efficacy studies for designs from Battelle and CMU.
“The goal of this program is to create and demonstrate new, noninvasive technologies for interfacing with the brain at high resolution,” said Dr. Weber. “The Battelle and CMU investigators are working on unique technologies that may suit this purpose, and I will work with those teams to validate and refine the technology in animal and human BCI studies.”
The CMU team is led by Pulkit Grover, PhD, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), along with Maysam Chamanzar, PhD, assistant professor of ECE, and Jana Kainerstorfer, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. The group will apply novel concepts in physics, biology, and engineering to fight dispersion of waves as they enter the head. McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Shawn Kelly, PhD, Senior Systems Scientist at the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems at CMU with courtesy faculty appointments in the Electrical and Computer Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Departments, is also a member of this team.
“Our team has taken on the ambitious goal of completely noninvasive sensing and stimulation at unprecedented spatiotemporal resolution,” said Dr. Grover. “The noninvasive aspect will make our solutions widely applicable, but it is also what makes our goal extremely challenging. Fundamentally, all waves – light, ultrasound, electrical currents – disperse in the head due to presence of a thick skull. To compensate for this, we are leveraging two completely new technologies being developed at CMU. In Drs. Weber, Gaunt, and Collinger at Pitt, we have the ideal collaborators to validate and improve these technologies and bring them that much closer to practice.”
Battelle is the prime on a second N3 program. Gaurav Sharma, PhD, a senior research scientist in the Medical Devices and Neuromodulation group, and his team have created a concept for the N3 program called BrainSTORMS (Brain System to Transmit Or Receive Magnetoelectric Signals). This technology involves the development of a novel nanotransducer that would be delivered through an intravenous injection and then targeted to a specific area of the brain. When the task is complete, the nanotransducer will be magnetically guided out of the brain for clearance out of the body.
“This is one of the most exciting and challenging projects I have worked on,” said Dr. Sharma in a prepared statement. “With BrainSTORMS, we will again be pushing the limits of 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 how the nervous system is probed and studied.”
Fellow RNEL Lab members Drs. Gaunt and Collinger, assistant professors of physical medicine and rehabilitation, will help to validate these technologies in first-in-human trials. All three researchers have experience with BCI technology and neuroprosthetics; they aim to better understand how humans use sensory information to regulate actions and apply that knowledge to prosthetic devices. They will use their expertise in this field to run the human trials of the developed N3 program technologies.
Illustration: Rehab Neural Engineering Labs.