Operating on the cutting edge of neuroengineering and neurotechnology, researchers at the Carney Institute for Brain Science are making huge strides in developing and deploying devices that interface with the brain to yield better understanding of the brain and aid those with paralysis and other nervous system disorders.
The origins of neuroegineering at Brown are in a project known as BrainGate. Building on early fundamental research in the laboratory of Institute Founding Director John Donoghue on how the brain controls movement, a team of researchers who transcend boundaries of fields of study has been building and testing a brain-computer interface system that promises to restore function and independence for individuals with paralysis.
Diane Lipscombe, director of the Institute, said, “The research has required many integrative approaches. It has required knowledge from a wide range of different fields, including neuroscience, math, engineering and others in order to create the recipe for this great breakthrough in technology.”
The brain-computer interface works by using a tiny implanted array of electrodes to rapidly sample and then interpret the electrical activity of scores of neurons in the brain’s motor cortex. Signals are translated into digital commands to control a computer cursor, a robotic arm, a wheelchair or, with implanted stimulators, a person’s own paralyzed arm and hand.
Leigh Hochberg, professor of engineering as well as a neurologist, leads the clinical testing and development of the BrainGate device. Arto Nurmikko, professor of engineering and physics, and David Borton, assistant professor of engineering, have been working to develop next-generation wireless interfaces, a crucial step in implementing brain-computer interfaces in the world.
The breadth of neuroengineering and neurotechnology at Brown extends beyond BrainGate. Borton is also pursuing patterned spinal cord stimulation to restore movement after paralysis and collaborating with Wael Asaad, assistant professor of neurosurgery and neuroscience, to test improved deep-brain stimulation devices for movement disorders.
Nurmikko and Borton are developing new state-of-the-art, low-power, high-fidelity distributed brain sensors. Christopher Moore, professor of neuroscience, is leading a team developing noninvasive, all-molecular, light-based methods to control circuit function. Others are applying computational approaches to measure the efficacy of noninvasive stimulation and developing novel methods of imaging the intact nervous system.
“Look what can be done if you pull groups together and take an integrative approach to big, challenging questions,” Lipscombe said.