August 2019

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16 t m c » p u l s e | a u g u s t 2 0 1 9 I f all goes precisely as planned, something aston- ishing will occur at the Texas Medical Center in 2023. In a scenario that seems borrowed from science fiction, two patients, linked by their minds, will be able to transmit information back and forth without speaking, typing or writing. And, as if that's not ambitious enough, they'll be able to do it without having undergone any surgery. Brain-to-brain and brain-to-computer communication are part of a major research effort by the Pentagon, which views these types of links as critical to supporting the soldier of the future. The work happening in the medical center, led by researchers at Rice University, is one of several projects occurring throughout the country to support a government-funded initiative called Next- Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology, or N 3 . The research and devel- opment wing of the U.S. Department of Defense will sink $18 million into the Rice-led project alone. This research aims to solve a key problem facing those who seek to improve these types of communication. On one hand, technology already exists that allows researchers and clinicians to establish connections between groups of neurons in the brain and machines. But that technology typically requires surgery, and it's considered too invasive to use on those who haven't suffered injuries or illness—such as able-bodied soldiers. On the other hand, noninvasive neurotechnology exists, but it lacks the precision and sophistica- tion for application in the real world. Researchers, then, are working to help the military have the best of both worlds: a high-quality connection between brains and computers—or brains and other brains—without the need for surgery. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which develops emerging technolo- gies for the military, is funding six different research teams across the country that are trying to make advances on this front. If successful, the techniques could have diverse, seemingly inconceivable appli- cations. Soldiers might gain the ability to control unmanned aerial vehicles—or, theoretically, an entire swarm of them—using only their minds. "Just as service members put on protective and tactical gear in preparation for a mission, in the future, they might put on a headset containing a neural interface, use the technology however it's needed, then put the tool aside when the mission is complete," said Al Emondi, Ph.D., the N 3 program manager, in a statement. For patients, treatments previously seen as unimaginable without surgery— restoring sight to the blind or movement to the seriously injured—may be within reach. For example, if a patient loses the ability to see or hear due to disorders of the eye or ear, but the underlying part of the brain that receives those signals remains intact, the technology could be applicable. "You can imagine there'd be people who might benefit from a visual prosthetic but are still uncomfortable with the idea of brain surgery," said Jacob Robinson, Ph.D., an associate professor in Rice's Brown School of Engineering who leads the Rice research team. Theoretically, the technology could not only support military operations, but also could open up treatments to a broader pool of patients who may not be interested in having brain surgery but would still benefit from neurotechnology. The Rice-led effort, dubbed MOANA, includes 15 co-investigators from Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital, Duke University, Columbia University and the John B. Pierce Laboratory affiliated with Yale University. Under the initiative, researchers aim to establish the mind-machine link via a special cap worn by patients and outfitted with lasers, optical detectors and magnetic field generators. Robinson's team is charged with proving it's possible to use non-surgical tech- nology to both detect and control brain signals—specifically, that light can be used to measure the activity of cells in the brain and that magnetic fields can control activity in brain cells. The team will also have to show that the process can occur quickly—at the speed of thought. "Our goal is to access information from the individual cells that might be communicated 100 times per second," Robinson said. Any slower, he added, and the information gets "washed out" and difficult to interpret. In order for the cap to function, though, the brain must be prepped. Viral vectors that edit genes will be delivered to precise locations in the brain. These vectors change the way neurons respond to light when they're active, taking advantage of the property of certain light wavelengths that can penetrate the skull. That would allow the cap to "read" brain activity. Meanwhile, neurons would be reprogrammed to fire in response to magnetic activities, which would enable researchers to "write" to the brain. Initially, researchers will test the technology on rodents and non-human primates. And that's where the science fiction comes in. "What we're aiming to do … is to be able to transmit one animal's sensory perception to another ani- mal," Robinson said. For example, researchers could present one mouse with a stimulus—a certain tone or a specific image—and the "connected" mouse would behave as if he heard or saw it. By the end of four years, the team hopes to be able to sustain that same process with humans. First, the team would develop an image—say, a car or a house—and try to transmit it to the mind of a blind person through the cap. Next, the subject would be able to describe exactly what he or she "saw." Talk to Me with Your Mind Crafting the future of brain-to-brain and brain-to-computer communication B y R y a n H o l e y w e l l An important thing to realize is that the [images and sounds] we are seeking to decode are processed in ways that are very different from, say, your stream of consciousness or private thoughts. — JACOB ROBINSON, PH.D. Associate professor at Rice University's Brown School of Engineering

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