DARPA Opens the Door to the Next Prosthetic Revolution

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By Karen Henry
Karen Henry

In December, The O&P EDGE brought you an exclusive look at the result of one of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Revolutionizing Prosthetics (RP) 2009 arm projects—the neurally integrated MPL arm­—which is in the final stages of development at Orthocare Innovations, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This month, we present you with a sneak peak at the second DARPA arm project—the "strap-and-go" arm system being developed at DEKA Research and Development Corporation, Manchester, New Hampshire.

While this may mark the final stages of the prosthetic arm projects, DARPA isn't done with prosthetic technology just yet. In the spirit of pushing technology into previously unimagined territory, DARPA has quietly opened the door to the next phase of its neural-control program. On March 3, DARPA released a solicitation for research proposals, titled, "Histology for Interface Stability over Time" (HIST).

"All existing methods to extract human neural information are inadequate for high-performance prostheses, because either the level of extracted information is too low (< 500 events/sec) or the functional lifetime is too short (< 2 years)," the solicitation reads. "It is now feasible to develop tissue-response-mitigating implanted cortical microelectrodes, which can extend interface lifetime well beyond two years and toward the lifetime of the patient."

To that end, DARPA is seeking research in four technical areas. First, DARPA wants to objectively identify and understand what causes neural-recording interfaces to fail, with the goal of reporting on "possible methods to mitigate or eliminate each identified failure mechanism...." Second, DARPA is looking for research teams to develop new in-vitro, in-vivo, and non-invasive methods of assessing "the performance, degradation, and eventual failure of neural-recording interfaces." Third, the agency is seeking "models and techniques to predict the failures of neural-recording interfaces long before they actually occur." And fourth, DARPA is looking for ways to "accelerate the failures of neural-recording interfaces."

According to the solicitation, researchers will not be using "the recorded signals to actually control prosthesis technology for any part of this program. Instead, the focus is on representative signals that are typically used to control prosthesis technology."

The far-reaching goal is to create fast, highly reliable, accurate neural-recording interfaces "necessary to control many degree-of-freedom (DOF) machines, such as high-performance prosthetic limbs." The resulting interfaces will be more seamlessly integrated with the human brain and "be suitable for clinical use over the lifetime of an injured soldier (~70 years)."

To read the full solicitation, visit www.fbo.gov, click on "Opportunities," and search for Solicitation Number DARPA-BAA-10-32.

Karen Henry