The fields of neuroengineering and brain-computer interfaces could have a huge impact on a number of neurological diseases, such as strokes, neurodegenerative disorders, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and other brain diseases.
Written by: Emma Shepard
Media Contact: Bob Shepard
Some call it a major breakthrough for medicine. And a major breakthrough for engineering. The new field of neuroengineering combines bioengineering with neuroscience. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has launched a PhD in neuroengineering. program in 2020, and now faculty from the UAB School of Engineering and the departments of Neurobiology, Neurology, and Neurosurgery from the Heersink School of Medicine have come together to create the UAB Neuroengineering and Brain-Computer Interface Initiative.
Together, the fields of neuroengineering and brain-computer interfaces could have a dramatic impact on a number of neurological diseases such as stroke, neurodegenerative disorders, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and other brain diseases. . One of the goals of brain-computer interfaces is to create devices capable of restoring function to a damaged nervous system by interacting with, interpreting, and controlling neural signals to produce a positive response.
The NBCII, which is led by Lynn Dobrunz, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology, and Nicole Bentley, MD, assistant professor of neurosurgery, has more than 100 members from across UAB.
NBCII’s mission is to combine neurobiology, neuroimaging, neural interface technology, and the latest developments in neuroscience with engineering and analytics to synergize and advance research, education, and patient care at UAB and beyond.
“Neuroengineering is one of the most innovative and fastest growing areas of neuroscience research, education and funding,” said Dobrunz, director of NBCII. “A major goal of NBCII is to foster collaborations and expand UAB’s interdisciplinary research in this exciting new field.”
An active subset of the NBCII is the new Brain-Computer Interface Special Interest Group. The group, which has more than 50 members, brings together neurosurgeons, neurologists, engineers and neuroscientists from UAB.
“Each of these areas has unique data and analytical capabilities that, with collaboration, could yield insights not possible in each alone,” said Bart Guthrie, MD, professor of neurosurgery. “This information will inform innovative ideas about brain function, clinical neuropathology, novel neuromodulation strategies, and immediate applications for the development of brain-computer interfaces.”
Guthrie has used data from more than 1,000 deep brain stimulation surgical procedures to conduct lifesaving research for patients with movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, since 2016.
For one of their first initiatives, the special interest group is working to set up a data sharing platform to provide group members with better access to data relevant to BCI. With patient consent, data from neurosurgical procedures may be shared with neuroengineers to advance understanding of neurodegenerative disorders and other brain diseases to improve patient experiences and outcomes.
During routine surgery for movement disorders or epilepsy, neurosurgeons like Bentley, associate director of the NBCII, implant electrodes into specific regions of the brain to deliver electrical impulses or to investigate seizures. These electrodes can also be used to record brain activity during the procedure which neuroengineers could then analyze. For example, neurosurgeons can record baseline brain activity while patients rest and then again while performing various cognitive tasks.
“The rich data contained in brain signal recordings can provide insight into how the brain processes information and how abnormal processes can lead to diseases we see clinically,” Bentley said. “A major goal of NBCII is to share this data across disciplines to answer fundamental questions about brain function in health and disease.”
“As an engineer, I am interested in finding biomarkers using signal analysis and machine learning to improve the effectiveness of deep brain stimulation,” said Arie Nakhmani, Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and organizer of the special interest group. “I think the most interesting and valuable discoveries happen by crossing disciplinary boundaries. Brain-computer interfaces are an excellent example of such transdisciplinary research that has technical and clinical applications.
The BCI Special Interest Group holds monthly meetings with presentations designed to share knowledge among faculty members and trainees in neurosurgery, neurology, neuroscience, and engineering. Topics range from “neuroengineering during awake DBS surgery” to “How is the hierarchical structure of language created in the brain?” »
In addition to leading the BCI Special Interest Group, the NBCII supports the PhD in Neuroengineering. program, hosts a seminar series on neuroengineering, and launches a new special interest group on circuit analysis.
UAB’s PhD in Neuroengineering. The program is a joint activity between the UAB School of Engineering and the UAB Heersink School of Medicine. It is the only program of its kind in the state of Alabama and one of the only stand-alone neuroengineering doctoral programs in the country.
By combining faculty expertise across disciplines, this program will train a new generation of neuroengineers to advance understanding of neurodegenerative disorders and other brain diseases, and to develop new therapies, neuroprostheses, and tools to restore lost brain function and improve patient outcomes.
The NBCII Ph.D. and Neuroengineering. The program also receives assistance from UAB’s Comprehensive Neuroscience Center. Neuroengineering is one of the pillars of the CNC, where it engages with neuroimaging, neuromodulation and other pillars of the CNC for mutual support.