The human brain, according to Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice, is an “electrical circuit with electrochemical reactions that generate pulses. Our neurons communicate with these pulses.” This vision of the brain is the future of brain science, and Aazhang and his colleagues are on the cutting edge of neuroengineering.
Aazhang leads the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative, an ambitious, universitywide research effort launched in 2018 that applies electrical engineering, bioengineering, and medical and statistical approaches to the science surrounding brain function. With millons of people in the world today affected by disorders of the nervous system and brain injuries, the need to better understand the brain is immediate and consequential.
“We already had a great deal of resources and capabilities in capturing signals and recordings from the brain,” Aazhang explains. “We also wanted to capitalize on the proximity of world-class neuroscience and neurology departments in the Texas Medical Center.” Taken together, these elements position Rice’s engineering program to develop the expertise and tools that doctors and researchers need to diagnose and treat neurological disorders.
Jacob Robinson and Caleb Kemere, both associate professors of electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering, have been key players in the momentum of neuroengineering at Rice. Robinson currently heads two federally funded programs to develop sensory prosthetics, helping people who have lost the ability to see or hear activate the regions of the brain associated with those functions.
“Our goals in the next 30 years are to understand and prevent seizures, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a long list of neurological disorders that affect the lives of millions. A collaboration between engineers, scientists and healthcare professionals will get it done.”
Kemere’s lab uses machine-learning algorithms and other techniques to study the hippocampus, the part of the brain that coordinates memory. By investigating neurons involved in both encoding and reactivating memories, he is constructing a model to better understand memory formation.
Together, Robinson and Kemere are aggressively pursuing the work of mapping, re-engineering and ultimately modulating the nervous system to mitigate injury and disease. This challenge includes building technologies that can interact with the biological world, such as advanced computational microscopy techniques that use light, rather than electrodes, to interrogate neural activity.
Ultimately, treating Parkinson’s disease, depression, chronic pain, or restoring sight and hearing requires a system smart enough to adapt to the state of the brain and stimulate it in a way that keeps the patient in a safe and functional neural zone. “This involves models, sensors and actuators,” explains Robinson. “It’s engineering talk. But it’s encompassed, in one way or another, in all of these projects.”
The Neuroengineering Initiative is determinedly working towards a comprehensive understanding of the human brain, and the university has prioritized this challenge by investing an initial $50 million to launch the program. This figure includes five new tenure-track faculty members across several departments. The program itself includes 26 researchers representing seven engineering departments and the Department of Psychology, along with scientists from the University of Texas Health Science Center and Baylor College of Medicine.
And yet, additional resources are needed to contribute to the broader vision of developing a world-renowned neuroengineering program. In particular, the initiative needs funding for postdoctoral and graduate students who can carry out multiple research projects across varied groups. Postdoctoral researchers are extremely important to innovation and scientific breakthroughs, and support for these positions would directly impact progress in understanding and solving for disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, aphasia, epilepsy, depression and more. As a community of scholars, alumni, parents and friends, we can give to this frontier of modern science, placing Rice at the forefront of groundbreaking research and innovation.
To learn more about supporting the Neuroengineering Initiative, contact Sara Lillehaugen Rice, senior director of development, at email@example.com or 713-348-3189.