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DARPA is taking steps that could one day help people with vision and hearing loss. Brain illustration. (Image courtesy of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)<br />

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is taking steps that could one day help people with vision and hearing loss. (Image courtesy of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/Released)

DARPA is taking steps that could one day help people with vision and hearing loss. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded contracts to five research organizations and one company to support the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program. The institutions that received the contracts are Brown University, Columbia University, Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation), John B. Pierce Laboratory, Paradromics, Inc. and the University of California, Berkeley.

The chosen organizations formed teams to develop the research and component technologies required to create a high-resolution neural interface and make working systems that can support therapies for sensory restoration. Four teams will work on vision and the remaining teams will work on hearing and speech.

DARPA announced NESD in January 2016. The program’s goal is to develop an implantable system that can provide more precise communications between the brain and the digital world. The teams’ work has the potential to greatly advance scientists’ understanding of the neural underpinnings of vision, hearing, and speech, which could one day lead to new treatments for people with sensory deficits.

“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 Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD Program Manager. “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.”

The program will rollout in phases: making breakthroughs in hardware, software, and neuroscience, then basic studies and progress in miniaturization and integration.

The research will delve into how the brain processes hearing, speech, and vision.

Visit DARPA for details on each team’s goal.

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