The human brain is an amazing thing, but when it doesn’t work when it gets disconnected from other parts of the body. If it can’t communicate with the eyes, a person goes blind. When it loses contact with the ears, the person goes deaf. And if the connection to the body’s muscles is lost — as in the case of a spinal injury — then the person becomes paralyzed. Researchers are hard at work to develop technology to augment or replace the brain-body interface, or to create an interconnection between the brain and other devices such as sensors or robotic prosthetics.
Paradromics is one company working on such technology, and their researchers have taken a unique approach. They are creating a Neural Input-Output Bus (NIOB) that aims to provide a real-time connection to 1 million neurons in the brain, capable of data transfer rates greater than 1 Gbps (gigabits per second). Using special CMOS devices and microwire bundles, the company’s goal is to build a massively parallel data bus that can be converted to a high-speed serial data stream that can be sent to digital devices. The initial target application is a system to read brain signals of ALS patients who have lost the ability to speak, giving them a means of communicating with the aid of the implant.
This may seem far-fetched or overly ambitious, but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is impressed with the prospects and have included Paradromics in the agency’s new Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program. Along with projects from Brown University, Columbia University, and the University of California Berkeley, Paradromics has been awarded an $18.3 million contract with DARPA to develop its NIOB system. If it works, it could lead to restoring many functions for patients who have lost them to injury or disease. It also raises interesting possibilities of how the system could be used to augment a person’s physical and mental capabilities.