DARPA Wants Implantable Hard Drive for the Brain


DEKA-arm-600x400Seeing a 55-year-old quadriplegic woman steer a F-35 simulator with only her thoughts left Military.com associate editor Brendan McGarry curious to find out more about the work that DARPA officials are doing with the human brain. He visited the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offices in Arlington, Va., on Wednesday to get more details on the project.

This morning we published the piece on the advances DARPA engineers and scientists are making with prosthetic appendages as well as the human memory. DARPA, one of the Pentagon's leading research agencies, is especially excited about its program called Restoring Active Memory.

McGarry wrote that DARPA "seeks to build a prosthetic device that could aid in the formation and recall declarative memory, a form of long-term memory that can be recalled such as a fact. For example, a future experiment might involve a patient who is asked to identify a series of faces and names with the aid of an implant." Read the whole article here, as McGarry offers more details on the two patients in DARPA's program:

The research builds on the work of a precursor program, called Revolutionizing Prosthetics, which dates back almost a decade and reflects the cornerstone of the agency's research into neural signaling.

Jan Scheuermann, one of two patients in the program, in 2012 agreed to let surgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center implant a pair of pea-sized electrodes onto her left motor cortex -- which controls movement -- and connects her to a robotic arm. She hoped she might feed herself for the first time in a decade. She did that and more.

Scheuermann, a 55-year-old mother of two who became paralyzed in middle-age due to a rare neurological disorder known as spinocerebellar degeneration, became so adept at manipulating the arm developed by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory that her participation in the study was extended until October, when the electrode arrays were removed.

"That is the first program in the agency where you have humans interacting with really advanced prosthetic devices to do something extremely useful," said Justin Sanchez, who manages DARPA's Biological Technologies Office in Arlington, Va.

Part of the program even includes research into allowing the brain to understand sensation again.
The next and final phase of the program will seek to reverse the signaling process by understanding the patterns for sensation in the central nervous system.

"It's really easy to say, ‘We want to bring sensation back,' but it's really difficult to actually do it," Sanchez said. "You have to go to a different part of the brain that's involved in the perception of touch -- the primary central cortex -- and again the challenge is the same: You have an electronic device that is measuring something and we need to translate that into signals that the brain understands."

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