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In new DARPA project, researchers exploit the latest in silicon electronics to invent an implanted brain-interface device that could transform how artificial systems enhance brain functions. Today, implanted electrode devices for stimulating the brain are extremely crude devices with only a handful of electrodes that are used to mitigate the effects of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurodegenerative conditions. The number of patients with these devices is merely tens of thousands because of the extreme invasiveness of the implantation process and the large size of the implanted device. The invention of a less invasive implant device with many more channels that can interact with the brain would result in revolutionary improvements to brain-machine interfaces, including direct interfaces to the auditory cortex and the visual cortex, expanding dramatically the ways in which artificial systems can support brain function. Thanks to a new four-year $15.8M grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Columbia Engineering Professor Ken Shepard, a pioneer in the development of electronics that interface with biological systems, is leading a team to do just that: invent an implanted brain-interface device that could transform the lives of people with neurodegenerative diseases or people who are hearing and visually impaired. “This topic has drawn lots of interest from the private sector recently, including start-ups Neuralink and Kernel,” says Shepard, who is the Lau Family Professor of Electrical Engineering, and professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia Engineering. “If we are successful, the tiny size and massive scale of this device could provide the opportunity for transformational interfaces to the brain, including direct interfaces to the visual cortex that would allow patients who have lost their sight to discriminate complex patterns at unprecedented resolutions. This is a highly ambitious project for Columbia, indeed for all of us, and we are very excited to address such a challenging issue.””

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