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Engineering on the Brain: Illinois receives $3 million to train students in neuroengineering

2/14/2013

Kim Gudeman

The National Science Foundation has awarded Illinois an IGERT grant to study neuroengineering, an emerging field that falls outside the boundaries of traditional disciplines like neuroscience and engineering.

CSL researchers Doug Jones and Todd Coleman are spearheading a new initiative on neuroengineering that will enable novel brain-machine interfaces and other breakthroughs.
CSL researchers Doug Jones and Todd Coleman are spearheading a new initiative on neuroengineering that will enable novel brain-machine interfaces and other breakthroughs.
CSL researchers Doug Jones and Todd Coleman are spearheading a new initiative on neuroengineering that will enable novel brain-machine interfaces and other breakthroughs.

This fall, a select group of Illinois students will have engineering on the brain, thanks to a nearly $3 million grant through the National Science Foundation.

The 5-year grant is provided through NSF’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, which aims to spark interdisciplinary education in emerging frontiers. In Illinois’ case, IGERT will provide graduate students with the opportunity to study neuroengineering, which falls outside the boundaries of traditional disciplines like neuroscience and engineering.

“So often, neuroscientists see the need for a new technology, but don’t think it’s possible,” said Doug Jones, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Engineers, conversely, often have the ability to make advances happen, but don’t know what is needed. We’re going to retrain students in both disciplines to tackle problems in a richer way.”

The program will provide training for a group of 30 to 40 engineering and neuroscience students over five years. Students in both disciplines will immerse themselves in the other discipline through coursework and joint research.

The research will focus on three thrusts; the first two showcase key core strengths that are unique to Illinois, while the third has potential for transformational impact in the future. The thrusts are:

Audition – By learning how the brain processes sound, researchers will be able to build better cochlear implants and other types of hearing aids, among other benefits.
Neuroimaging – This work will focus on unlocking the mysteries brain functioning and identify what parts of the brain are active under various circumstances. The research will not only help engineers build more effective imaging technology, but also help doctors make better decisions at the bedside.
Brain-machine interfaces – This forward-looking thrust will look at how brain signals recognized intent. Applications include: A) rehabilitation – For example, a paraplegic could direct the movement of his wheelchair through thought; B) visual implants that stimulate the optic nerve and restore sight.

 

The research draws on the collective strength of Illinois’ expertise in psychology, integrative physiology, biochemistry, audition and speech recognition, and engineering, particularly in the areas of materials science and electrical & computer engineering.

“We have world-renowned experts in these areas,” said Todd Coleman, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-principal investigator. “Illinois could be a huge leader in the neuroengineering field.

Other co-principal investigators include Monica Fabiani and Bob Wickesberg, both professors of psychology.

The researchers believe that students may hold the key to breakthroughs in neuroengineering.

"Traditional neuroscience and engineering disciplines are deeply ingrained in traditional ways to view problems, which have benefits as well as limitations,” Coleman said. “Sometimes ignorance is bliss: having an unbiased perspective can allow people to re-think problems in unique ways. This is the opportune time to cross-fertilize these two areas and attack problems with a combination of scientific and engineering viewpoints."

About IGERT

IGERT is the National Science Foundation's flagship interdisciplinary training program, educating U.S. Ph.D. scientists and engineers by building on the foundations of their disciplinary knowledge with interdisciplinary training.

Collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries and requires teamwork provides students with the tools to become leaders in the science and engineering of the future. Diversity among the students contributes to their preparation to solve large and complex research problems of significant scientific and societal importance at the national and international level. IGERT students obtain the personal and professional skills to succeed in the careers of the 21st century. Since 1998 the IGERT program has made 215 awards to over 100 lead universities in 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. IGERT has provided funding for nearly 5,000 graduate students.