(May 20, 2019) … 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 to lead projects
and awarded each institution funding totaling nearly $20 million over four
years. Both projects include the University of Pittsburgh’s Doug Weber, Robert
Gaunt, and Jennifer Collinger.
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.
Weber, an associate professor of
bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, 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
“The goal of this program is to create and
demonstrate new, noninvasive technologies for interfacing with the brain at
high resolution,” said 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, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering
(ECE), along with Maysam Chamanzar, assistant professor of ECE,
and Jana Kainerstorfer, 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.
“Our team has taken on the ambitious goal of
completely noninvasive sensing and stimulation at unprecedented spatiotemporal
resolution,” said 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 Doug Weber,
Rob Gaunt, and Jen Collinger at Pitt, we have the ideal collaborators to
validate and improve these technologies and bring them that much closer to
Battelle is the prime on a second N3
program. Gaurav Sharma, 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 Sharma in a prepared statement.
“With BrainSTORMS, we will again be pushing the limits 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 Robert Gaunt and
Jennifer 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.
Contact: Leah Russell