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Pentagon enlists universities to collaborate on brain implants to repair brain injury

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DARPA, the Pentagon's research arm, has announced $14.9 million in funding for major research institutions to collaborate on brain implants that can help repair traumatic brain injury.

DARPA, the U.S. Department of Defense's research arm, has announced $14.9 million in funding for major research institutions to collaborate on brain implants that can help repair traumatic brain injury.

The Pentagon project, called RePAIR ("Reorganization and Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery"), aims to find a way to better analyze brain activity to develop more advanced models of how it operates.

The effort is comprised of 10 professors and their research teams, culled from fields such as neurobiology, psychiatry and network engineering.

The researchers hail from Stanford and Brown universities, the University of California-San Francisco and University College London.

Brain injury is not an uncommon injury. It affects vehicular accident victims, stroke patients and military veterans alike, totaling 1.7 million Americans each year.

The problem? Scientists know very little about it.

Currently, scientists can create conceptual models of brain activity and can record electrical pulses emitted by individual neurons in the brain. But they can't yet manipulate those pulses to reprogram the brain.

Enter optogenetics. The new technique involves emitting pulses of light to pinpoint and trigger a single neuron.

The scientists involved in the project seek to develop brain implants made of electrodes or optical fibers that can read electrical signals from neurons and deliver light pulses to stimulate other brain regions in response -- in effect, filling the gaps or "gray areas" where the brain has been too damaged to function properly.

Here's an excerpt from the DARPA solicitation:

Through understanding the principles that allow networks in different anatomic regions to coordinate and communicate in order to perform a task, we seek to understand the means through which the brain enables improved performance over time. Further, by evaluating brain activity at several scales simultaneously (EEG, local field potential, single neuron, neurotransmitter, and corresponding scales for other transmission means), investigators may be able to determine which properties generated at the single neuron level can be correlated and predicted in a meaningful manner at grosser levels of measurement, such as EEG.

The program is divided into two phases with three primary goals:

  • Create a bio-computationally accurate model of a primate performing a complex dexterous task;
  • Demonstrate the ability to stimulate relevant regions of the brain to evoke a response in the primate similar to that evoked through natural interaction with their surrounding environment;
  • Enable injury recovery by mimicking or simulating an injured brain.

Naturally, the researchers must first understand how the brain functions before they try to emulate it. If all goes as planned, testing in lab animals could commence in as little as four years.

[via Danger Room]

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Andrew Nusca

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Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure