Military Embedded Systems

DARPA looks to interface human brain with digital world


January 29, 2016

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

DARPA looks to interface human brain with digital world

ARLINGTON, Virginia. DARPA officials have created a new program that looks to develop an implantable neural interface that would provide unprecedented signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the human brain and the digital world. They are also looking for partners to help them on this quest, hosting an overview of the program, dubbed Neural Engineering System Design (NESD), next week. DARPA anticipates investing up to $60 million in the NESD program over four years.

The neural interface would function as a translator, converting between the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeros that make up the language of information technology. DARPA officials want to enable this communications link in a biocompatible device that is no bigger than one cubic centimeter in size, about the volume of two nickels stacked back to back. “Today’s best brain-computer interface systems are like two supercomputers trying to talk to each other using an old 300-baud modem,” says Phillip Alvelda, the DARPA NESD program manager. “Imagine what will become possible when we upgrade our tools to really open the channel between the human brain and modern electronics.”

NESD aims to enhance research capabilities in neurotechnology and provide a foundation for new therapies. Potential applications include devices that could compensate for deficits in sight or hearing by feeding digital auditory or visual data into the brain at a resolution and experiential quality far higher than is possible with existing technology.Neural interfaces currently approved for human use can squeeze a tremendous amount of information through just 100 channels, with each channel aggregating signals from tens of thousands of neurons at a time, according to a DARPA release. The result is noisy and imprecise. In contrast, the NESD program looks to develop systems that can communicate clearly and individually with any of up to one million neurons in a given region of the brain.

DARPA officials say to make this technology a reality will require integrated breakthroughs across various disciplines such as neuroscience, synthetic biology, low-power electronics, photonics, medical device packaging and manufacturing, systems engineering, and clinical testing. NESD researchers will be also be tasked to create advanced mathematical and neuro-computation techniques to first transcode high-definition sensory data between electronic and cortical neuron representations and then compress and represent that information with minimal loss of fidelity and functionality. As part of efforts to accelerate this process, NESD program officials will recruit a roster of leading industry stakeholders willing to offer state-of-the-art prototyping and manufacturing services and intellectual property to NESD researchers on a pre-competitive basis. In later phases of the program, those chosen could help transition the resulting technologies into research and commercial application spaces.

To provide an overview of the technical objectives of NESD, DARPA officials will host a Proposers Day meeting that runs next week, Tuesday and Wednesday, February 2-3, 2016, in Arlington, Va. The Special Notice announcing the Proposers Day meeting is available at More details about the Industry Group that will support NESD is available at A Broad Agency Announcement describing the specific capabilities sought is available at:

NESD is part of a broader portfolio of programs within DARPA that support President Obama’s brain initiative. For more information, visit:


Featured Companies

U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)

675 North Randolph Street
Arlington, VA 22203-2114