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Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology

Dr. Al Emondi

The Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program aims to develop high-performance, bi-directional brain-machine interfaces for able-bodied service members. Such interfaces would be enabling technology for diverse national security applications such as control of unmanned aerial vehicles and active cyber defense systems or teaming with computer systems to successfully multitask during complex military missions.

Whereas the most effective, state-of-the-art neural interfaces require surgery to implant electrodes into the brain, N3 technology would not require surgery and would be man-portable, thus making the technology accessible to a far wider population of potential users. Noninvasive neurotechnologies such as the electroencephalogram and transcranial direct current stimulation already exist, but do not offer the precision, signal resolution, and portability required for advanced applications by people working in real-world settings.

The envisioned N3 technology breaks through the limitations of existing technology by delivering an integrated device that does not require surgical implantation, but has the precision to read from and write to 16 independent channels within a 16mm3 volume of neural tissue within 50ms. Each channel is capable of specifically interacting with sub-millimeter regions of the brain with a spatial and temporal specificity that rivals existing invasive approaches. Individual devices can be combined to provide the ability to interface to multiple points in the brain at once.

To enable future non-invasive brain-machine interfaces, N3 researchers are working to develop solutions that address challenges such as the physics of scattering and weakening of signals as they pass through skin, skull, and brain tissue, as well as designing algorithms for decoding and encoding neural signals that are represented by other modalities such as light, acoustic, or electro-magnetic energy.

Bridging the Gap Plus (BG+)

The Bridging the Gap Plus (BG+) program aims to develop new approaches for treating spinal cord injury by integrating injury stabilization, regenerative therapy, and functional restoration. To achieve this combinatorial approach, BG+ teams will build two systems of implantable and adaptive devices. The first system will reduce injury effects during the early phases of spinal cord injury. This system will consist of active devices that conduct real-time biomarker monitoring and intervention to stabilize – and where possible, rebuild – the neural communications pathways at the site of injury. Biomarker monitoring will provide previously unavailable diagnostic information for automated or clinician-directed interventions. The second system will primarily address recovery of function in the final phase of spinal cord injury by deploying networks of stimulation and/or recording devices on the nervous system or relevant end organs to effectively “bridge the gap” of the spinal cord injury.

The BG+ program seeks to change the paradigm for spinal cord injury treatment. Successful BG+ devices will mitigate the early effects of injury, enhance clinical awareness and therapeutic options at the injury site, accelerate natural long-term recovery processes, and restore multiple nervous system functions.

Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX)

With a focus on wounded warriors and facilitating their return to military service, the Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program is pursuing key technologies to enable precision control of and sensory feedback from sensor-equipped upper-limb prosthetic devices. If successful, the resulting system would provide users near-natural control of prosthetic hands and arms via bi-directional peripheral nerve implants. The program has a strong focus on technology handoff and aims to create and transition clinically relevant technology in support of wounded warriors suffering from single or multiple limb loss.

HAPTIX builds on prior DARPA investments in the Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program, which created novel neural interface systems that overcame previous sensor reliability issues to now last for the lifetime of the patient. A key focus of HAPTIX is on creating new technologies to interface permanently and continuously with the peripheral nerves in humans. HAPTIX technologies are being designed to tap into the motor and sensory signals of the arm to allow users to control and sense the prosthesis via the same neural signaling pathways used for intact limbs. Direct access to these natural control signals will, if successful, enable more natural, intuitive control of complex hand movements, and the addition of sensory feedback will further improve hand functionality by enabling users to sense grip force and hand posture. Sensory feedback may also provide important psychological benefits such as improving prosthesis “embodiment” and reducing the phantom limb pain that is suffered by approximately 80 percent of amputees.

In addition to developing the low-power microelectronics needed for the system, HAPTIX performer teams also conduct fundamental neuroscience research to understand how the nervous system encodes motor and sensory information for the hand. This knowledge guides development of algorithms that enable intuitive control of the prosthesis and provide rich sensations of touch and proprioception. If successful, the completed HAPTIX system will be integrated with one of the advanced prosthetic limbs developed under DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program to create the first dexterous prosthetic limb with full sensory and motor capabilities that is suitable for home use. DARPA anticipates a 12-month, take-home clinical trial of the complete HAPTIX system as the culmination of the program.

Intelligent Neural Interfaces (INI)

The Intelligent Neural Interfaces (INI) program seeks to establish “Third-Wave” artificial intelligence methods to improve and expand the application space of next-generation neurotechnology. Recent progress in central and peripheral neural interface technologies has resulted in impressive capability demonstrations by utilizing artificial intelligence methods such as neural networks, evolutionary algorithms, and state space machine learning algorithms; however, a number of challenges still exist.

Neural Engineering System Design (NESD)

The Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program seeks to develop high-resolution neurotechnology capable of mitigating the effects of injury and disease on the visual and auditory systems of military personnel. In addition to creating novel hardware and algorithms, the program conducts research to understand how various forms of neural sensing and actuation might improve restorative therapeutic outcomes.

The focus of the program is development of advanced neural interfaces that provide high signal resolution, speed, and volume data transfer between the brain and electronics, serving as a translator for the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology. The program aims to develop an interface that can read 106 neurons, write to 105 neurons, and interact with 103 neurons full-duplex, a far greater scale than is possible with existing neurotechnology.

To succeed, NESD requires integrated breakthroughs across disciplines including neuroscience, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing. In addition to hardware, NESD performer teams are developing advanced mathematical and neuro-computation techniques to first transcode high-definition sensory information between electronic and cortical neuron representations and then compress and represent those data with minimal loss of fidelity and functionality.

If the program is successful, the work has the potential to significantly advance scientists' understanding of the neural underpinnings of vision, hearing, and speech and could eventually lead to new treatments for injured Service members living with sensory deficits. Additionally, NESD tools could yield new understanding of the architecture and processing of highly integrated neural circuits.

Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS)

The Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies (SUBNETS) program aims to improve force health by using neurotechnology as the basis for effective, informed, and precise treatments for neuropsychiatric illnesses in military Service members. The effects of such illnesses, brought on by war, traumatic injuries, and other experiences, remain challenging to treat. Current treatment approaches—surgery, medications, and psychotherapy—can often help to alleviate the worst effects of illnesses such as major depression and post-traumatic stress, but they are imprecise and not universally effective. Through SUBNETS, DARPA seeks to generate the knowledge and technology required to deliver relief to patients with otherwise intractable neuropsychiatric illness.

The SUBNETS vision is distinct from current therapeutic approaches in that it seeks to create an implanted, closed-loop diagnostic and therapeutic system for treating, and possibly even curing, neuropsychiatric illness. That vision is premised on the understanding that brain function—and dysfunction, in the case of neuropsychiatric illness—plays out across distributed neural systems, as opposed to being strictly relegated to distinct anatomical regions of the brain. The program also aims to take advantage of neural plasticity, a feature of the brain by which the organ’s anatomy and physiology alter over time to support normal brain function. Because of plasticity, researchers are optimistic that by using SUBNETS-developed technology the brain can be trained or treated to restore normal functionality following injury or the onset of neuropsychiatric illness.

Through measuring pathways involved in complex systems-based brain disorders including post-traumatic stress, major depression, borderline personality, general anxiety, traumatic brain injury, substance abuse and addiction, and fibromyalgia/chronic pain, SUBNETS pursues the ability to record and model how these systems function in both normal and abnormal conditions among volunteers seeking treatment for unrelated neurologic disorders and impaired clinical research participants. SUBNETS uses these models to determine safe and effective therapeutic stimulation methodologies. The models will be adapted onto next-generation, closed-loop neural stimulators that exceed currently developed capacities for simultaneous stimulation and recording, with the goal of providing investigators and clinicians an unprecedented ability to record, analyze, and stimulate multiple brain regions for therapeutic purposes. DARPA intends for the SUBNETS program to culminate in technology demonstrations and submission of devices for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

SUBNETS is designed to advance neuropsychiatry beyond the realm of dialogue-driven observations and into the realm of therapy driven by quantifiable characteristics of neural state. In doing so, the program would create one of the most comprehensive datasets of systems-based brain activity ever recorded. If successful, SUBNETS will lead to informed and precise neurotechnological therapy to produce major improvements in quality of life for Service members and veterans with neuropsychological illness who have very few options with existing therapies.

SUBNETS is informed by independent Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) experts to help DARPA proactively identify potential issues related to the use of neurotechnology. Communications with ELSI experts supplement the standard oversight provided by institutional review boards that govern human clinical studies and animal use.

Active Social Engineering Defense (ASED)

Mr. Walter Weiss

Over the past 40 years, our world has become increasingly connected. These connections have enabled major advances in national security from pervasive real-time intelligence and communications to optimal logistics. With this connectivity has come the threat of cyber attacks on both military systems and critical infrastructure. While we focus the vast majority of our security efforts on protecting computers and networks, more than 80% of cyber attacks and over 70% of those from nation states are initiated by exploiting humans rather than computer or network security flaws. To build secure cyber systems, it is necessary to protect not only the computers and networks that make up these systems but their human users as well.

We call attacks on humans “social engineering” because they manipulate or “engineer” users into performing desired actions or divulging sensitive information. The most general social engineering attacks simply attempt to get unsuspecting internet users to click on malicious links. More focused attacks attempt to elicit sensitive information, such as passwords or private information from organizations or steal things of value from particular individuals by earning unwarranted trust.

These attacks always have an “ask,” a desired behavior that the attacker wants to induce from the victim. To do this, they need trust from the victim, which is typically earned through interaction or co-opted via a spoofed or stolen identity. Depending on the level of sophistication, these attacks will go after individuals, organizations, or wide swathes of the population.

Social engineering attacks work because it is difficult for users to verify each and every communication they receive. Moreover, verification requires a level of technical expertise that most users lack. To compound the problem, the number of users that have access to privileged information is often large, creating a commensurately large attack surface.

The Active Social Engineering Defense (ASED) program aims to develop the core technology to enable the capability to automatically elicit information from a malicious adversary in order to identify, disrupt, and investigate social engineering attacks. If successful, the ASED technology will do this by mediating communications between users and potential attackers, actively detecting attacks and coordinating investigations to discover the identity of the attacker.



1  Dr. Al Emondi, Program Manager

Biological Technologies Office (BTO)
Dr. Al Emondi joined DARPA in June 2017. His focus is on neurotechnology and human-machine interaction. His current work explores novel neural interface system architectures applicable to broad user populations and improving the performance of neural interfaces and their application potential through the use of third-wave artificial intelligence.
Emondi came to DARPA from Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR) Atlantic, located in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was the chief technology officer (CTO) for SPAWAR Atlantic and served as deputy CTO to the SPAWAR HQ CTO for the Atlantic region. He also led the science and technology competency, which included personnel focused on basic and applied sciences, technology transition, and technology transfer. Before his tour at SSC Atlantic, he was an early pioneer for software-defined radio research initiatives at the Air Force Research Lab in Rome, New York.Emondi holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in neuroscience and a Master of Science in electrical engineering from Syracuse University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Wilkes University.


2  Mr. Walter Weiss, Program Manager
Information Innovation Office (I2O)

Mr. Walter Weiss joined DARPA’s Information Innovation Office (I2O) as a program manager in July 2017. His research interests focus on cybersecurity operations.
Prior to his position at DARPA, Weiss served in cyber operational, technical, and policy roles in the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, as well as the private sector.
Weiss holds a Master of Science degree in information systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor of Science degree in information sciences and technology from Pennsylvania State University.

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