The goal: Decoding 1 million neurons.
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The experimental tech could eventually treat vision, hearing, speech, and other disorders.

By Sy Mukherjee
July 10, 2017

The Department of Defense will provide $65 million in funding to develop brain-machine interface technologies that could, one day, lead to major medical breakthroughs in hearing, vision, speech, and other brain-related disorders.

The funding comes in the form of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contracts under the agency’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, part of a variety of projects meant to support former President Barack Obama’s BRAIN initiative. The contracts have been awarded to Brown University, Columbia University, The Seeing and Hearing Foundation, the John B. Pierce Laboratory, Paradromics Inc, and the University of California, Berkeley, DARPA announced Monday.

“The NESD program looks ahead to a future in which advanced neural devices offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interface for therapeutic applications,” said NESD program founder Phillip Alvelda in a statement. “By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than one million neurons in parallel, NESD aims to enable rich two-way communication with the brain at a scale that will help deepen our understanding of that organ’s underlying biology, complexity, and function.”

You read that right: These companies’ and academic organizations’ goal is to create neural links that can communicate with more than one million neurons. But as impressive as that sounds, it’s still just a tiny fraction of the 86 billion neurons in the brain. For now, the NESD’s mission is to uncover data relating to sensory functions like eyesight and hearing and create a basic foundation for brain-machine technology.

That will involve myriad complications, technological, biological, and regulatory alike. Which is why DARPA has chosen a range of grant winners focused on various aspects of the project, such as creating implantable devices that help restore speech or building a “holographic microscope” that can keep track of one million neurons (you can check out the full list of contracted firms and their initiatives here). Down the road, the NESD will collaborate with regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to discuss possible clinical trial procedures in humans.

While this may be one of the first major public-private partnerships for brain-machine interfaces, the private sector has already been chasing the science fiction-like dream. Eclectic billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk made waves earlier this year when he announced that his latest venture, Neuralink Corp, is working to connect the brain with a computer interface within the decade. There’s also been considerable progress on developing technologies that allow the brain to form connections with artificial limbs.

A version of this essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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