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Neural Technology Research Centers Launched

Brain wiring illustration

Brain wiring illustration (Courtesy, Human Connectome Project and NIH)

17 April 2017. Research centers for accelerating new technologies that tackle nervous system disorders are opening at two universities in the U.S., with industry partners. The five-year, $1.5 million Building Reliable Advances and Innovation in Neurotechnology, or BRAIN, research initiative is funded by grants from National Science Foundation to engineering schools at University of Houston and Arizona State University in Tempe.

The BRAIN centers expect to address neurological conditions linked to the expanding older segment of the population in the U.S. and worldwide, as well as increasing numbers of spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury cases reported across age categories. While a lot of research and development of new technologies aimed at diagnosing and treating these disorders is underway, grant recipients say progress has been uneven and a better framework including standards for evaluating for evaluating new technologies is needed. Moreover, the cost of some new technologies are beyond the reach of many potential users.

The project aims to take advantage of ongoing research at University of Houston, led by electrical engineering professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, and Arizona State, led by neural systems professor Marco Santello. Contreras-Vidal’s lab studies brain-machine interfaces and robotics for rehabilitation, including neuroprosthetics and wearable exoskeletons. In addition, the Houston team examines the science behind regulating these technologies. Santello’s Neural Control of Movement Laboratory at Arizona State explores science and engineering behind the workings of the human hand, as well as the role of vision and tactile input for learning and controlling object manipulation.

The Houston and Arizona State researchers plan to develop tools for evaluating new neural technologies, which the universities say will involve collaboration with industry partners. These evaluation tools are expected to include standards for evaluating new technologies ranging from performance of individual neurons up to non-human and human organisms. Research teams also plan to develop a deeper understanding of quantitative analysis tools that can also assess the effects of these technologies on quality of life, and at the same time help lower the cost of new technologies to consumers.

Among the issues research teams are expected to examine are interoperability of neurological technologies to help new sub-systems and devices work together, exchange data, and interpret the findings with a common understanding. Other teams plan to investigate measuring neural activity in the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves to better assess the state of neural functions. In addition, the measurements, tools, and standards developed throughout the project will be documented for regulatory authorities to evaluate the safety, reliability, and efficacy of neural technologies.

The awards to Houston and Arizona State are made by National Science Foundation under the agency’s Industry–University Cooperative Research Centers, or IUCRC program. This program aims to bring academic researchers together with counterparts from industry for early-stage and precompetitive research and development of new technologies. These cooperative research centers are also expected to help break down disciplinary silos, as well as help develop an expert workforce in these fields.

The two BRAIN centers will support 50 academic and 14 industry researchers, with participating companies chipping in $50,000 each per year. Companies taking part include medical device maker Medtronic, medical software developer Incyphae, neurophysiological systems company Brain Vision LLC, medical instruments maker Indus Instruments, 3-D medical imaging company 3Scan, and advanced digital graphics developer Inhance Digital. Several medical centers and research institutes in Texas and Arizona are also participating.

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