Military personnel control sophisticated systems, experience extraordinary stress, and are subject to injury of the brain. DARPA created the Neuro Function, Activity, Structure, and Technology (Neuro-FAST) program to begin to address these challenges by combining innovative neurotechnology with an advanced understanding of the brain. Using a multidisciplinary approach that combines data processing, mathematical modeling, and novel optical interfaces, the program seeks to open new pathways for understanding and treating brain injury, enable unprecedented visualization and decoding of brain activity, and build sophisticated tools for communicating with the brain.
Until now, neuroscientists have for decades been limited in their ability to understand the total brain because they have not had the capability to measure all of the critical details of neural circuits. Even today, researchers’ understanding of the brain remains fragmented due to gaps in knowledge between brain cells, circuits, and system information processing. Similarly, brain interfaces have the potential to give researchers deep insight into brain function—which would enable doctors to restore performance of functional tasks following injury—but current approaches to these devices fall short. They offer no capacity for selective neuron identification combined with neural activity during behavior, and can only record small numbers of neurons (hundreds or fewer) en masse.
Neuro-FAST aims to address these shortcomings by illuminating new understandings of how the brain operates. Performer teams must overcome the dual challenges of achieving single-neuron resolution while simultaneously being able to analyze activity from large numbers of neurons to acquire detailed modeling of the dynamic wiring of neural circuits that cause behavior. To do so, Neuro-FAST builds off of the recently developed CLARITY process, as well as recent discoveries in genetics, optical recordings, and brain-computer interfaces. By combining all four areas, Neuro-FAST seeks to allow researchers to individually identify specific cell types, register the connections between organizations of neurons, and track their firing activity using optical methods in awake, behaving subjects. Such models, coupled with real-time brain activity, could illuminate how the brain works.
The data generated by this process is unlike any previously produced by the neuroscience community and feeds a growing body of knowledge about brain function and form. In addition to fundamental rodent research, Neuro-FAST aims to expand the process to non-human primate brains and whole-organ human tissue samples to create a deep understanding across higher-order mammals.
If successful, Neuro-FAST will support pioneering research into brain function over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales to better characterize and mitigate threats to the human brain and facilitate development of brain-in-the-loop systems to accelerate and improve functional behaviors.
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