Improved technology for military uniforms, body armor, and equipment saves the lives of thousands of Service members injured on the battlefield. Unfortunately, many of those survivors come home seriously and permanently wounded, suffering unprecedented rates of limb loss and traumatic brain injury. This crisis has motivated great interest in the science of and technology for restoring sensorimotor functions lost to amputation and injury to the central nervous system. For more than a decade, DARPA has led efforts aimed at revolutionizing the state of the art in prosthetic limbs, yielding two advanced mechatronic limbs for the upper extremity. These new devices are truly anthropomorphic and capable of performing dexterous manipulation functions that finally begin to approach the capabilities of natural limbs. However, in the absence of a high-bandwidth, intuitive control interface for these limbs, they will not achieve their full potential to improve quality of life for wounded troops.
DARPA launched the Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program in 2010 to directly address the need for high-performance neural interfaces to control the dexterous functions made possible by DARPA’s advanced prosthetic limbs. Specifically, RE-NET seeks to develop the technologies needed to reliably extract information from the nervous system, and do so at the scale and rate necessary to control many degree-of-freedom machines. Prior to RE-NET, all existing methods to extract neural-control signals were inadequate for amputees to control high-performance prostheses, either because the level of extracted information was too low or the functional lifetime of the interface was too short.
Ongoing technological advances create new opportunities to solve both of these traditional problems with neural interfaces. For example, it is now feasible to develop high-resolution peripheral neuromuscular interfaces that increase the amount of information obtained from the peripheral nervous system. Furthermore, advances in cortical microelectrode technologies are extending the durability of neural signals obtained from the brain, making it possible to create brain-controlled prosthetics that remain useful over the lifetime of the patient.
The RE-NET program is divided into three complementary efforts aimed at understanding why the performance of neural interfaces degrades over time and developing new high-performance neural interfaces that last the life of the patient.
Ultimately, DARPA seeks to develop clinically viable technologies that provide neural control of state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs to amputees and people with spinal cord injuries and neurological diseases that restrict movement.
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