Distributed August 24, 2000
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Janet Kerlin

Physical and life sciences meet

Brown engineering and neuroscience group wins grant for brain study

Six Brown scientists plan to explore the function of the human brain using tiny electronics – nanotechnology – with a $4.25-million grant from the U.S. Defense Department.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Using electronic structures 500 times smaller than the width of a human hair, six Brown University professors plan to explore the function of the human brain under a $4.25-million grant from the U.S. Defense Department.

The team of scientists from several disciplines hopes to develop electronic circuits many times smaller than the microelectronics used in personal computers. Their work in nanotechnology may be able to tell scientists more about how the brain works and may someday allow computer makers to supercharge electronic structures with human capabilities.

The grant is unusual because it pairs the life sciences with the physical sciences, said Arto Nurmikko, professor of electrical engineering and physics and principal investigator of the research program. A third discipline within the research is information science, the study of the processing of information.

“We want to have the man-made and the nature-made structures communicate,” Nurmikko said. “Is there a benefit? Is it possible to endow a man-made structure with some new capabilities which we don’t have and might become increasingly important in the future?”

The group’s proposal is to create a tiny device that would emit light to stimulate brain cells and record light from brain cells, analogous to a camera.

The research unites professors who bring various perspectives to the research: James Anderson, professor of cognitive and linguistic science; Barry Connors, professor of neuroscience; John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience and director of Brown’s Brain Science Progam; Benjamin Kimia, associate professor of engineering; and Jingming Xu, professor of engineering and physics. The proposal originated from Brown’s Center for Advanced Materials Research, where Nurmikko is co-director.

“From my perspective it’s an exciting grant, it’s an opportunity to work with first-rate people from physics and engineering with whom I would not otherwise connect,” Connors said. “There aren’t too many times that people from my field and their field get together in the same room to talk about science.”

When the scientists did sit down together, the life scientists became aware of cutting-edge technologies in physics and engineering that haven’t yet been applied to the study of the human body.

The five-year grant was awarded in July by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Six winners were selected from a final round of 80 proposals submitted by leading academic institutions. The Defense Department gave awards to teams from California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Princeton, and Arizona State University, in addition to Brown.

The Brown proposal was entitled “Coupling of Brain with Microstructured Electronic/Optoelectronic Arrays: Interactive Computation at the Bio/Info/Micro Interface.”