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Next-Generation Noninvasive Brain–Computer Interface (BCI) Technologies

The Laboratory has developed a significant Brain–Computer Interface (BCI) research program as part of its groundbreaking work leading the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Revolutionizing Prosthetics (RP) program. Building on research undertaken in creating the world’s first neurally controlled prosthetic limb, APL has brought together experts in multiple fields to envision and create world-class, noninvasive, optical imaging BCI technologies. In February 2017, APL and Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers used brain–computer interfacing to show they can directly observe concepts in the human brain.

Leveraging the achievements of Revolutionizing Prosthetics, APL has been designing optical imaging methods to measure neural activity noninvasively in the hopes of overcoming the limitations of using surgically implanted electrodes.

Facebook BCI Technology Project

In collaboration with Facebook’s Building 8, APL will actively develop these optical imaging systems with the goal of measuring brain activity hundreds of times per second, from locations precise to millimeters. Whereas existing optical neuroimaging methods measure blood oxygenation, APL is developing methods to measure neural activity directly via changes in the optical properties of neural tissue itself. If successful, these improvements in spatial and temporal resolution will make it possible to create noninvasive BCI systems that deliver the performance of today’s invasive BCI systems.

In just three months of supporting Facebook’s Building 8, APL has already designed and built three different optical systems. Through the rest of this year, APL will test these systems in collaboration with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to determine whether they can meet the requirements for noninvasive BCI applications.

The Unique Expertise to Develop Noninvasive BCI Technologies

To address the interdisciplinary challenges in developing noninvasive BCI technologies, APL has assembled a team with expertise in topics including neuroscience, remote sensing, nondestructive testing, signal and image processing, acoustic processing, materials science, computational modeling and simulation, and systems integration. APL was able to assemble this unique breadth of expertise by drawing on resources from across the Laboratory, including members of the Research and Exploratory Development Department, Asymmetric Operations Sector, Force Projection Sector and Space Exploration Sector.

During the Lab’s 75-year history of supporting national defense through research and development, APL has come to be recognized as a leader in the area of systems engineering. This systems engineering process manages the development and implementation of complex technological systems through rigorous analysis and testing; this, in turn, leads to improvements and effective problem-solving.

APL’s Sponsored Academic Research Agreement (SARA) with Building 8

In December 2016, Johns Hopkins University and APL joined a select group of universities and research centers in a unique collaboration agreement with Building 8, Facebook’s hardware development and research team. The Sponsored Academic Research Agreement, or SARA, allows Facebook to set up research collaborations with the best research minds in the world within weeks or even days, rather than months.

APL is the nation’s largest university affiliated research center, or UARC. UARCs are independent, nonprofit organizations that conduct essential research, development and systems engineering to support national security science and technology needs. APL’s culture of rapid innovation and unique breadth of domain expertise make it a natural fit to the SARA.

In addition to JHU and APL, 15 other organizations joined the original SARA: California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Rice University, University of California San Francisco, UC Berkeley, Northeastern University, Princeton University, University of Waterloo (Canada), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech.