Military personnel control sophisticated systems, experience extraordinary stress, and are subject to injury of the brain. To address these challenges, DARPA pursues innovative neurotechnology and advanced understanding of the brain using a multidisciplinary approach that combines data processing, mathematical modeling, and novel interfaces. The Neuro Function, Activity, Structure, and Technology (Neuro-FAST) program is part of a broader portfolio of programs within DARPA that support President Obama’s brain initiative. The program seeks to enable unprecedented visualization and decoding of brain activity.
For decades, neuroscientists have 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, and to use that knowledge to restore human performance of functional tasks after 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.
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. Neuro-FAST researchers 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. Such models would then be coupled with brain activity in real-time to better understand how brain processes work. Neuro-FAST envisions development of novel optical methods to enable the necessary recording.
The data generated by this process would be unlike any previously produced by the neuroscience community and would feed a growing body of knowledge about brain function and form. In addition to fundamental rodent research already underway, Neuro-FAST will expand the processes to non-human primate brains and whole-organ human tissue samples from existing repositories 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.
Neuro-FAST and related DARPA neuroscience efforts are informed by members of an independent Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) panel. Communications with ELSI panelists supplement the oversight provided by institutional review boards that govern human clinical studies and animal use.
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