DARPA and the BRAIN Initiative

Summary

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) mission is to create breakthrough technologies for US national security and to protect the health of U.S. service members and veterans.

To better address the health needs of service members and veterans, DARPA has launched four programs that support the goals of the BRAIN Initiative: RAM (Restoring Active Memory), RAM Replay, HAPTIX (Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces), and SUBNETS (Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies).

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) mission is to create breakthrough technologies for US national security and to protect the health of U.S. service members and veterans.

To better address the health needs of service members and veterans, DARPA has launched four programs that support the goals of the BRAIN Initiative: RAM (Restoring Active Memory), RAM Replay, HAPTIX (Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces), and SUBNETS (Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies).

Clockwise from top left: RAM, HAPTIX,  RAM Replay, and SUBNETS. Images from DARPA articles.

Clockwise from top left: RAM, HAPTIX, RAM Replay, and SUBNETS. Images from DARPA articles.

DARPA and the BRAIN Initiative

DARPA is supporting four current programs and is planning new investments in support of the BRAIN Initiative, with the ultimate goal of relieving and rehabilitating warfighters and civilians suffering from traumatic injury and neuro-psychiatric illness: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a number of major efforts to develop breakthrough neurotechnologies that are deepening scientists’ understanding of brain function and are supporting the development of novel therapeutic strategies. As part of this effort, DARPA is developing and assessing revolutionary electronic interfaces to the brain, as well as to the peripheral nervous system, that have the potential to provide high-resolution insights into neural circuits, lower the need for and impacts of invasive surgery, and improve neurocognitive and medical outcomes for patients with some of the most challenging disorders of the nervous system. Efforts currently underway at DARPA include the programs descirbed below.

To see presentations on the DARPA research below by Drs Justin Sanchez and Emily Caporello, go to this post on BRAIN 2015 about the “NIH BRAIN Initiative Workshop: Industry Partnerships to Facilitate Early Access to Neuromodulation and Recording Devices for Human Clinical Studies” on  6/3/15 and 6/4/15.

HAPTIX: Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces

Despite recent advances in technology for upper-limb prostheses, artificial arms and hands are still unable to provide users with sensory feedback. DARPA has awarded prime contracts for Phase 1 of its Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program.

HAPTIX seeks to create a prosthetic hand system that moves and provides sensation like a natural hand. Sensory feedback, especially from the hand, is vitally important for many functions, and HAPTIX seeks to create a sensory experience so rich and vibrant that users would want to wear their prostheses full time.

HAPTIX Starts Work to Provide Prosthetic Hands with Sense of Touch

 

RAM-Restoring Active Memory

Through the Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, DARPA seeks to accelerate the development of technology able to address this public health challenge and help servicemembers and others overcome memory deficits by developing new neuroprosthetics to bridge gaps in the injured brain.

The end goal of RAM is to develop and test a wireless, fully implantable neural-interface medical device for human clinical use, but a number of significant advances will be targeted on the way to achieving that goal.”

 

RAM Replay

The RAM (Restoring Active Memory) Replay DARPA research program aims to investigate the role of neural “replay” in the formation and recall of memory. The goal is to help individuals better remember specific episodic events and learned skills. The military application is to improve rehabilitation and recovery for injured warfighters challenged by impaired memory.

The program is designed to develop “novel, rigorous computational methods to help investigators determine which brain components matter in memory formation and recall, and how much they matter.”

Image from DARPA article

Image from DARPA article

SUBNETS: Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies

The Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) was created in response to a pressing need. Despite the continued best efforts of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to protect the health of U.S. servicemembers and veterans, the effects of neuropsychological illness brought on by war, traumatic injuries, and other experiences remain challenging to treat.

The SUBNETS vision is distinct from current therapeutic approaches in that it seeks to create an implanted, closed-loop diagnostic and therapeutic system for treating, and possibly even curing, neuropsychological illness.

Proposed MGH DEvice Architecture by Mass General Hospital A sketch of the proposed wireless brain stimulation device with multiple electrodes that would be implanted deep within the brainAn estimated one in three veterans returning from Iran and Afghanistan experience PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, often called the “invisible wounds” of war. Millions of Americans live with various types of mental illnesses that are typically treated with medications and psychotherapy. But some people do not respond to these therapies and become so debilitated they cannot work, have normal relationships or even leave their homes.

Proposed MGH DEvice Architecture by Mass General Hospital
A sketch of the proposed wireless brain stimulation device with multiple electrodes that would be implanted deep within the brainAn estimated one in three veterans returning from Iran and Afghanistan experience PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, often called the “invisible wounds” of war. Millions of Americans live with various types of mental illnesses that are typically treated with medications and psychotherapy. But some people do not respond to these therapies and become so debilitated they cannot work, have normal relationships or even leave their homes.

Other programs relating to the BRAIN Initiative

Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx)

The ElectRx program aims to help the human body heal itself through neuromodulation of organ functions using ultraminiaturized devices, approximately the size of individual nerve fibers, which could be delivered through minimally invasive injection.

Neuro Function, Activity, Structure and Technology (Neuro-FAST)

The Neuro-FAST program seeks to enable unprecedented visualization and decoding of brain activity to better characterize and mitigate threats to the human brain, as well as facilitate development of brain-in-the loop systems to accelerate and improve functional behaviors. The program has developed CLARITY, a revolutionary tissue-preservation method, and builds off recent discoveries in genetics, optical recordings and brain-computer interfaces.

Preventing Violent Explosive Neurologic Trauma (PREVENT)

The PREVENT program is comprehensively evaluating the physics of the interaction between explosive blasts and the brain and has identified which blast components are associated with neurologic injury. The program also seeks to develop test systems and predictive models that characterize blast exposure to optimize treatment paradigms, explosive blast mitigation and protective strategies.

Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET)

The RE-NET program seeks to develop the technologies needed to reliably extract information from the nervous system, and to do so at a scale and rate necessary to control complex machines, such as high-performance prosthetic limbs.

Revolutionizing Prosthetics

The Revolutionizing Prosthetics program aims to continue increasing functionality of DARPA-developed arm systems to benefit Service members and others who have lost upper limbs. The dexterous hand capabilities developed under the program have already been applied to small robotic systems used to manipulate unexploded ordnance, reducing the risk of limb loss among Soldiers.

DARPA Framework

DARPA’s investment strategy begins with a portfolio approach. Reaching for outsized impact means taking on risk, and high risk in pursuit of high payoff is a hallmark of DARPA’s programs. We pursue our objectives through hundreds of programs. By design, programs are finite while creating lasting revolutionary change. They address a wide range of technology opportunities and national security challenges. This assures that while individual efforts might fail—a natural consequence of taking on risk—the total portfolio delivers.

How do we create this portfolio of programs? One major part of the answer is bottom up: DARPA program managers define and propose new programs they believe promise revo-lutionary change. This is important for several reasons. An effective DARPA program manager is the person closest to the critical challenges and possible technology opportunities in his or her arena, and the personal inspiration and drive behind a novel idea is the spark needed to start a big fire. More fundamentally, surprise rarely comes from groupthink.

Yet we recognize that our work lives in a context of today’s realities and tomorrow’s outlook. So a framework for DARPA—an understanding of our enduring mission in the context of the geopolitical and technological environment and its direction—is vital in shaping our portfolio.

We focus on three essential, interdependent strategic objectives to carry out our mission:

Demonstrate breakthrough capabilities for national security
Catalyze a differentiated and highly capable U.S. technology base
Ensure DARPA itself remains robust and vibrant to deliver on its mission today and in the future.
We pursue each of these objectives in the context of our current framework.

Alumni Outreach

The short tenure of DARPA technical staff (Program Managers, Deputy Program Managers, Office Directors, Deputy Office Directors, Directors and Deputy Directors), means that even though the technical staff numbers at around 120 any given year,  the number of Scientists and Engineers who have done a 3-5 year turn at DARPA, is a generous and well-placed group. The majority of the DARPA alumni consider their tenure at DARPA a life-changing experience.

The societal implications of new technologies

Because our programs push the leading edge, they are sometimes society’s first encounter with the dilemmas associated with new technologies. We pursue these technologies because of their promise, but we understand, that in this pursuit, we might be working in areas that raise ethical, legal, security, or policy questions.

 

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