The US Department of Defense Funds New Direction in Monitoring and Stimulating Neurons for Directly Interfacing with the Brain


Jun 8, 2017, San Diego: Scintillon Institute Associate Professor Nathan Shaner is part of a nine-laboratory team that has been awarded a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative. This project, dubbed “IBIS: Implantable bioluminescence interface system for an all-optical neuroprosthesis to the visual cortex,” will be funded under DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program.

Ultimately, the IBIS team seeks to develop a neural interface system capable of simultaneously recording from more than one million neurons and stimulating more than one hundred thousand neurons in regions of the human sensory cortex. Accomplishing this goal will be a huge leap forward from existing neural interfaces, which are limited to much smaller numbers of neurons, and are too bulky and invasive to be used in human therapies.

            The key innovation of this project will be the use of light as both an input and output signal to record activity and stimulate activity in the brain. As one of nine labs on the IBIS team, Dr. Shaner’s group at Scintillon Institute will focus on solving the biosynthetic pathway of one or more luciferins, the small molecules used by bioluminescent organisms to produce light. With these pathways decoded, it will be possible to imbue any cell with the ability to produce bioluminescence completely autonomously.

The DARPA NESD program “aims to develop an implantable neural interface able to provide advanced signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the brain and electronics. This interface would serve as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. […] Among the program’s potential applications are devices that could compensate for deficits in sight or hearing by inputting digital auditory or visual information into the brain at a resolution and experiential quality far higher than is possible with current technology.”  More information on this program can be found at on the DARPA website.   

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