Neural, Cognitive & Rehabilitation Engineering
Discovering exactly how the brain works, developing innovative tools to ease this task, and translating these findings into new biomedical devices to address mental, physical and neurological disabilities are some of the most significant tasks being undertaken by engineers today. In fact, the National Academy of Engineering has labeled reverse engineering the brain – learning how it functions to in order to uncover its design principles – and engineering the tools for scientific discovery two of just 14 “Grand Challenges” facing engineers in the 21st century. What they are finding will allow for advances in biorobotics and artificial intelligence, the creation of mind controlled prosthetic limbs and neuroexoskeletons, and treatments for patients with brain conditions such as schizophrenia, autism, Parkinson’s and epilepsy.
At the Cullen College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, researchers are conducing multi-scale work impacting all these areas. This includes the development of neural probes able to sense molecular activity in the brain, probes designed to stimulate and record the activity of individual neurons and neuronal populations. Researchers are also using both invasive and non-invasive technologies to decode movement intentions in order to build effective brain-machine interfaces, as well as studying the role different regions of the brain play in processing the senses, including sight, sound and touch.
These efforts can be divided into five categories, all of which supports the ultimate goals of reverse engineering the brain, developing innovative biomedical devices and translating these findings back into engineering and medicine.
Engineering New Innovative Tools for studying the brain
- Molecular probes that allow researchers to monitor molecular activity deep within the brain
- The optitrode, a device designed to deliver light to the brain and record the electrical activity that follows
- Neural interfaces that record the 'neural symphony' across the brain to decipher the neural representations for action and cognition.
- Computational electromagnetic methods to study signal propagation inside/outside the brain
Translational Engineering for the creation of new clinical therapies
- Scalp electroencephalography (EEG)-based brain-machine interface (BMI) systems, designed to allow amputees and stroke patients to control powered prosthetics and orthotics with their mind without the use of penetrating electrodes
- Probe-based BMI research, focused on learning how to design efficient neural implants that can last for decades.
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and Transcranial Current Stimulation (TCS), which can either halt or induce activity in designated regions of the brain and can be used to treat conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and other neurological conditions.
Reverse Engineering the Brain
- Developing large-scale computational models of sensory-motor control, learning and adaptation across the life span in order to decipher computational principles and algorithms underlying perception and action.
- Reverse-translational studies in patient populations, which can lead to a better understanding of the roles of different regions of the brain and the development of more advanced self-guided robotics/prosthetics.
- Sensory processing investigations involving neuroatypical individuals in order to better understand their conditions and highlight potential therapeutic pathways.
Educational Innovation that reaches the next generation of researchers
- Advanced postdoctoral training and career development at the intersection of engineering and medicine, with a focus on translational engineering
- Graduate Programs offering students the ability to study and conduct research under some of the world’s leading authorities in the neural engineering field
- Course offerings for undergraduates on the cutting edge of engineering brain research
- K-12 outreach efforts in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas designed to inspire generations of scientists and engineers to come
Engineering and Society
- Fast-tracking biomedical innovations from the bench to the clinic and home and back ('reverse translational').
- Investigating neuroethics and user-inspired bio-robotics and prosthetics
- Organizing world-class symposia and conferences (e.g., http://bmiconference.org)