Why neuroengineering is a smart career choice

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thumb rep neuroengineering 550x413Programming computers has never been easier. The real challenge is figuring out how to hack the circuits inside your head.

The words “brain-machine interface” may sound like sci-fi, but they are approaching reality thanks to the BRAIN Initiative from the National Institutes of Health. Launched by President Barack Obama in 2013, this moonshot already has poured $400 million into a major effort to understand — and interact — with brain circuits. That work is pointing to a world in which neuroscience moves “from observation to causation,” in the words of BRAIN Initiative leaders. They argue that everything from Alzheimer’s-related memory loss to sleep disorders to soul-crushing depression could potentially be reversed by using electronics to influence information flow in the brain. At the center of this revolution is neuroengineering. As the name suggests, this new discipline sits at the intersection between neuroscience and engineering, where lessons learned from decades of analyzing and designing circuits, networks and chips are combined with the latest findings on brain circuitry.

“This is where the field of neuroscience is going,” said Lori McMahon, Ph.D., Jarman F. Lowder Professor of Neuroscience, director of the UAB Comprehensive Neuroscience Center and dean of the UAB Graduate School. “If I were just starting out, I would get my degree in neuroengineering.” Soon that could be an option for graduate students at UAB. (Much more on that below.) But first it’s worth looking at what all the excitement is about.

Awe-inspiring results

More than 150,000 people worldwide with Parkinson’s disease already benefit from deep-brain stimulators. These surgically implanted wires and battery packs, developed by teams of neurophysiologists, engineers and physicians, can restore-motor circuit function in many patients, with life-changing effects. Watch this demonstration from UAB neurologist Harrison Walker, M.D., below:

Advanced technologies promise to extend these benefits to even more of the 10 million people worldwide with Parkinson’s. UAB’s Walker has a major BRAIN Initiative grant focused on new types of deep-brain stimulation (DBS) electrodes. Research at UAB and elsewhere also is finding benefits for DBS in other conditions, including depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And neuroengineering doesn’t stop there, with applications that could reach most of the nearly 1 billion people worldwide that the World Health Organization estimates suffer from neurological disorders — from epilepsy to migraines. Before they can eliminate headaches, however, scientists first need to be able to deal with a headache of their own: recording and interacting with entire brain circuits. These consist of millions of individual neurons working together, out of the tens of billions of neurons in the human nervous system. The best researchers can achieve today are measurements in the hundreds of neurons range. That is a major advance over a few years ago, when working with a single neuron was the state of the art, but still far short of success. To reach the BRAIN Initiative’s goals, its leaders note, new minds are needed: “It is imperative to train the next generation of scientists/engineers at the interface between neuroscience and engineering.”

Brain boundaries

UAB researchers exploring new areas in neuroengineering:

  1. Harrison Walker, M.D. (Neurology) has a $1.3 million grant from the BRAIN Initiative (UAB’s first) to study a new type of electrode technology that could improve the efficacy and tolerability of deep-brain stimulation in patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease.
  2. Kristina Visscher, Ph.D. (Neurobiology), is using neuroimaging to study how the brain’s visual system processes information in macular degeneration.
  3. Lynn Dobrunz, Ph.D. (Neurobiology), Lori McMahon, Ph.D. (Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology), Mark Bolding, Ph.D. (Radiology) and Gary Gray, Ph.D. (Chemistry), and collaborators at Clemson University and the University of New Mexico, are developing a less-invasive way to activate neurons in animal models using radioluminescent particles that can cross the blood-brain barrier.
  4. Adrienne Lahti, M.D. (Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology), uses neuroimaging to investigate brain connectivity in patients experiencing their first episode of schizophrenia.

This training “isn’t just the molecules and ion channels and cell-signaling of traditional neuroscience,” McMahon said. “We have a really high concentration of neuroscientists in the School of Medicine who study circuits in the brain, but we’re not engineers. We’re at the very beginning of understanding how all these brain networks are talking to each other from a computational point of view. These are problems that neuroscientists can’t solve on their own. It will take engineers, mathematicians, physicists and computer scientists.”

Ph.D. program in the works

In February 2019, the University of Alabama Board of Trustees approved the first step in a proposed doctoral program in neuroengineering at UAB, to be managed jointly by the schools of Engineering and Medicine, with a planned start date of fall 2020. It would be the only such program in the state and one of a handful across the country. UAB faculty are well-versed in cross-specialty collaborations. The Department of Biomedical Engineering is a joint department of Medicine and Engineering, for example, and the Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Engineering program fosters interactions among those schools as well as Public Health, Health Professions and the College of Arts and Sciences to train students for success in science, engineering, health and medical fields.

“UAB has strong research programs in neuroscience and engineering — and we’re going to combine them in unique ways,” said Timothy Wick, Ph.D., professor and senior associate dean in the School of Engineering, who is co-director of the nascent neuroengineering doctoral program. The in-depth, interdisciplinary training will include advanced topics in neurophysiology, neural dynamics, systems engineering, computational analysis and neuropathology. It also will feature dissertation committees that include engineers, clinicians and neuroscientists, which is a unique attribute for the program, Wick adds.

Engineering approach

A wide variety of research is underway at UAB that fits in the neuroengineering arena, from clinical to basic science, says Lynn Dobrunz, Ph.D., professor in the School of Medicine Department of Neurobiology, who will co-direct the program with Wick. In one project, Dobrunz and associate professor Mark Bolding, Ph.D., an MRI physicist in the Department of Radiology, and engineer Yuping Bao, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Alabama, are developing drugs encapsulated in MRI-visible nanoclusters and a method for allowing them to cross the blood-brain barrier using focused ultrasound. That would allow targeted drug delivery to activate precise regions of the brain, while leaving other regions unaffected. (See “Brain boundaries” for other UAB research in the neuroengineering arena.)

Dobrunz, who trained in biomedical engineering, noted that her lab already uses an “engineering approach” to study the nuances of synaptic transmission. Mathematical modeling allows her team to capture the dynamics of synaptic function and plasticity. An engineering approach is “a way of thinking about complex systems,” Dobrunz said. Neurons form networks of connected signaling events so intertwined that it is difficult to predict the overall result when you change a gene or signaling pathway. “Engineers have a toolset to quantitatively test that, using systems analysis,” she said. Students coming from a neuroscience background will learn when and how to apply those techniques, while students with applied math, engineering, biostatistics and computer science backgrounds will get a thorough grounding in neurobiology and neuropathology. “There is a huge need to train the next generation of researchers with these skills,” Dobrunz said.

Next-gen skills

Graduates from the UAB neuroengineering program would be prepared to start their own research labs or fill the growing number of positions in the medical device industry, where many companies are working to develop neurointerfaces. As the population ages, diagnoses of neurodegenerative disease are rising as well, Wick notes — creating an increasing demand for these devices. Verily, the much-talked-about life sciences startup from Google, is one of many firms working in this area, as is the leading medical device company Medtronic. “We expect that demand from students and employers for such programs far exceeds potential capacity in existing programs,” Wick added.

“There’s a realization that if we’re going to understand how the healthy brain works and how these circuits get disrupted in all kinds of illnesses, it takes people from different disciplines,” McMahon said. “We’re bringing together two groups of experts to do new research that we haven’t done before. It’s a very exciting time.”

No more brain problems?

A few of the tantalizing possibilities proposed for re-engineering the human nervous system:

  1. Epilepsy – sensors could constantly monitor the brain for seizure activity, then intervene to reduce or block these signals before an attack.
  2. Depression – transcranial magnetic stimulation helps to relieve depression symptoms; rewiring impaired circuits that lead to persistent depression could restore normal information flow and boost mood.
  3. Blindness – ultrathin artificial retinas could replace damaged eyes, someday restoring sight to millions.
  4. Paralysis – “neuroprosthetic” devices could allow a person to walk again after a spinal cord injury.
  5. Alzheimer’s disease – by artificially replacing the circuits formed by dead or damaged cells, it could be possible to reestablish the brain pathways that rob patients of their personalities.
  6. Stroke – new stimulators and sensors could re-establish damaged circuits after a “brain attack,” restoring function to patients.