Neural Engineering System Design programme (DARPA funding award announced)


“The NESD program looks ahead to a future in which advanced neural devices offer improved fidelity, resolution, and precision sensory interface for therapeutic applications,” said Phillip Alvelda, the founding NESD Program Manager. “By increasing the capacity of advanced neural interfaces to engage more than one million neurons in parallel…”


  • A Brown University team led by Dr. Arto Nurmikko will seek to decode neural processing of speech, focusing on the tone and vocalization aspects of auditory perception. The team’s proposed interface would be composed of networks of up to 100,000 untethered, submillimeter-sized “neurograin” sensors implanted onto or into the cerebral cortex. A separate RF unit worn or implanted as a flexible electronic patch would passively power the neurograins and serve as the hub for relaying data to and from an external command center that transcodes and processes neural and digital signals.
  • A Columbia University team led by Dr. Ken Shepard will study vision and aims to develop a non-penetrating bioelectric interface to the visual cortex. The team envisions layering over the cortex a single, flexible complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) integrated circuit containing an integrated electrode array. A relay station transceiver worn on the head would wirelessly power and communicate with the implanted device.
  • A Fondation Voir et Entendre team led by Drs. Jose-Alain Sahel and Serge Picaud will study vision. The team aims to apply techniques from the field of optogenetics to enable communication between neurons in the visual cortex and a camera-based, high-definition artificial retina worn over the eyes, facilitated by a system of implanted electronics and micro-LED optical technology.
  • A John B. Pierce Laboratory team led by Dr. Vincent Pieribone will study vision. The team will pursue an interface system in which modified neurons capable of bioluminescence and responsive to optogenetic stimulation communicate with an all-optical prosthesis for the visual cortex.
  • A Paradromics, Inc., team led by Dr. Matthew Angle aims to create a high-data-rate cortical interface using large arrays of penetrating microwire electrodes for high-resolution recording and stimulation of neurons. As part of the NESD program, the team will seek to build an implantable device to support speech restoration. Paradromics’ microwire array technology exploits the reliability of traditional wire electrodes, but by bonding these wires to specialized CMOS electronics the team seeks to overcome the scalability and bandwidth limitations of previous approaches using wire electrodes.
  • A University of California, Berkeley, team led by Dr. Ehud Isacoff aims to develop a novel “light field” holographic microscope that can detect and modulate the activity of up to a million neurons in the cerebral cortex. The team will attempt to create quantitative encoding models to predict the responses of neurons to external visual and tactile stimuli, and then apply those predictions to structure photo-stimulation patterns that elicit sensory percepts in the visual or somatosensory cortices, where the device could replace lost vision or serve as a brain-machine interface for control of an artificial limb.

See for more details.

Technique named 'clarity' makes chunks of dead brain transparent, allowing fluorescent labeling

This technique takes a dead brain and permeates it with a transparent hydrogel matrix to keep proteins and nucleic acids in place. Then it removes the lipids. I guess the lipids are all that makes the brain opaque. At this point the brain is transparent but maintains its original structure so you can still label the proteins and nucleic acids.

Visualizing synaptic tagging and capture

A set of two articles recently came out in Science that directly visualize two different (and likely complementary) approaches to synapse specific delivery of gene products. Plasticity at specific synapses (input specificity — we’re restricting the discussion to the dendrites of the post-synaptic neuron) requires proteins (eg. new AMPA receptors) to get to those post-synaptic compartments and membranes. But the intructions for these new proteins are contained in the nucleus with the rest of the genome. Clearly, new proteins synthesized in the soma can’t just be sent everywhere, since only specific inputs (eg. particular dendritic spines) need these new proteins. How does this happen? Hence, the postulated synaptic tag.

Two approaches

Broadly, there are two approaches to synaptic tagging: 1) mRNA is distributed widely and translated locally at tagged locations; 2) protein products are distributed widely in the bodies of dendrites but only contact/off-load at tagged synaptic specializations. This News & Views gives a nice overview of the two papers, which find approach 1) in Aplysia cultures with sensorin mRNA and approach 2) in rat hippocampal neurons with Vesl-1S/Homer-1a protein. It amazes me that both were found pretty much simultaneously, but that might have more to do with the use of the photoconvertible Dendra2 protein than anything else.

With both approaches, we still don’t know why mRNA/protein is directed to a certain location. That is, we can visualize synaptic tagging but we don’t know what is the tag, its ontogeny, or the mechanism of tagging. But that might not be so important to understanding more about neural function. These new tools might allow us to image plasticity at many synapses at once, perhaps even in vivo. But before that, more work is needed… does the optical signal (from the Dendra fusion protein) correlate with degree of potentiation? Can we detect plasticity in the opposite direction, ie. synaptic depression, through another tag?  (As a sidenote to approach 1), the use of 5′ and 3′ UTRs as a sort of molecular zipcode is also intriguing.)

PNAS roundup: Superresolution in 3D and fetal testosterone of traders

PNAS has some interesting articles that I came across today:

  1. 3D PALM (open access): Using 2-photon and photoactivatable proteins, the authors image beyond the usual sub-wavelength TIRF limits. They image over multiple microns with 50nm resolution.
  2. Neuroeconomics:  Low digit ratio (2d:4d) predicts financial success in traders. Okay, measure the length of your index and ring fingers. (Not sure if this analysis applies for the ladies; the authors only used men in the study.) Calculate the ratio (2d/4d); longer ring fingers signify greater fetal androgen exposure. The mean value is about 0.96. As the authors say,

    Digit ratios have been found to predict performance in competitive sports, such as soccer, rugby, basketball, and skiing, so 2D:4D may also predict the risk preferences and physical speed required for high-frequency trading.

    A strong correlation (r~0.5) was found between low digit ratios and profits in short-term trading. So, they take on more risk and make more money. What I want to know is how well the low 2d:4d ratio traders did over the last 6 months!