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The push to create a $30 portable brain recorder

Don Farrall | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

Whether it's studying the potential for head impact injuries among young football players or adult soldiers, an intriguing area of research that's gaining buzz is the brain.

"There's a lot of interest in one of the most fascinating objects in the universe," said William Casebeer, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Part of the Defense Department, DARPA is collaborating with several tech-focused small businesses to create a $30 brain-recording device within the next year. 

Imagine small sensors, tucked inside a baseball hat or helmet, which would record electrical activity along your scalp. Your brain wave data then would be collected by mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones, so any head impacts could be analyzed on the spot for any serious injuries.

While a brain recording device sounds creepy and Star Trek-like, the potential applications of such low-cost, mobile technology are mind bending—and real. 

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Affordable brain-recording units have wide-reaching applications for high-impact sports, the military and hands-on science education in classrooms. The technology could also help gamers tackle their holy grail—hands-free, mind-controlled video games. Envision moving your personal avatar on a screen by simply thinking about it. 

In scientific terms, the brain-recording unit is called an electroencephalograph—or a EEG device for short. Medical-grade EEG systems costing thousands of dollars have been around for years. Portable EEG units in the $500 range also are available.

But a more affordable EEG device would put the technology in the hands of more students and hobbyists. The development could unlock tinkering and innovation for more amateurs, sometimes called citizen scientists. 

"A low-cost EEG system can be part of a laboratory experiment that a 15-year-old might be able to do," said Erik Handy, principal scientist at SI2 Technologies. The small business—based in North Billerica, Mass., 25 miles outside Boston—is among four companies that have received federal DARPA funding to create complementary solutions.

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Wanted: Super smart scientists

To better understand SI2 Technologies's road to brain recording units, you have to go back to 1982. Congress back then established the Small Business Innovation Research Program. It was an opportunity for smaller businesses to participate in federal government-sponsored research and development. Akin to a help wanted ad for super-smart scientists, DARPA publicly posts solicitations for researchers when it needs problems solved.

So when DARPA announced a solicitation for a "portable brain recording device & app," Handy and his team at SI2 Technologies—founded a decade ago—jumped at the opportunity.

EEG devices are part of the broader interdisciplinary field known as neurosciences. It focuses on the brain and its impact on behavior and cognitive functions. The field traditionally has been the domain of those who can access brain science labs.

Of course Handy can't give away the company's high-tech secrets in detail.

But the company's assets include a 3-D technology ink process that can conduct electricity, like a sheet of copper foil. Envision a 3-D printer shooting material through a nozzle that ultimately provides electric conductivity. 

The "so what?" here is upending traditional circuit boards, which are the small building blocks inside lots of technology and devices.

Moving beyond circuit boards

Traditional circuit boards are rigid and attached to the surface of other objects. In contrast, SI2 Technologies's 3-D printing technology allows electronic properties to be fused directly on the inside of a helmet or any curved surface—without the added weight of stiff circuit boards. 

"Soldiers helmets are already fairly heavy. So any additional weight could be problematic," Handy said. "Adding some neural intelligence without significant weight is a huge benefit," he said.

"Including EEGs in basic military first aid kits would also help with both medical diagnostics and clinical care for deployed soldiers," according to DARPA's solicitation for researchers. "Portable EEGs could be used in the field, with data sent to a corresponding app on a smartphone for near-instantaneous analysis." 

As context, most portable EEGs are prohibitive by cost and inflexible designs. "These devices are typically comprised of one or only a handful of sensors with fixed locations on the scalp," according to DARPA's solicitation.  

That's why DARPA is pursuing more affordable models; easy to use sensors that could be placed in multiple locations on the head to record activity in various brain regions; and the ability to download data directly to a tablet or smartphone, no middle-man interface required.

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William Casebeer, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is leading a program to create a $30 brain-recording device.
Heesun Wee | CNBC

EEGS in the classroom

The broader point here is nimble, affordable technology opening the door for more research and solutions.

Part of DARPA's $30 brain recording device challenge is to make the science affordable for classrooms and students. "There is a great need for inexpensive and easy to use neural recording devices," according to the DARPA solicitation. "Having EEGs in every classroom in America would engage students in science and technology in a way not previously possible in the field of neuroscience.    

"Teachers could design lesson plans in biology about the brain and sensory systems, and use hands-on demonstrations to engage students. Students could record their own brain activity and download the data to their (Apple) iPad," according to the solicitation.

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Stefan Duma, head of the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, fits a football helmet. Youth football players wear the same size helmets as adult players, but with more padding to fit.
Source: Jim Stroup | Virginia Tech

Do hits to the head differ with age?

Beyond classroom and military applications, scientists are tapping neurosciences to help prevent head injuries among young athletes. Each year in the United States, 25,000 to 30,000 athletes between the ages of 8 and 19 visit emergency departments seeking treatment for concussions sustained during organized football events.

Researchers at the Virginia Tech recently found football players as young as seven sustain hits to the head comparable to those absorbed by high school athletes and adults. And among seven and eight-year-olds, practices accounted for 60 percent of the recorded impacts and games accounted for the remaining 40 percent of impacts.

"We never really thought that would happen," said Stefan Duma of his research findings. He runs the Virginia Tech–Wake Forest Center for Injury Biomechanics. "To map the head impact exposure for this pediatric population, that had never been done before," said Duma, who oversaw the studies. 

The end game, according to Duma? "We can make football and military restraints better."

By CNBC's Heesun Wee. Followher on Twitter @heesunwee