This June 12th, a paralyzed Brazilian clad in a robotic bodysuit will be wheeled onto the field at the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In front of thousands of people in the stands, and millions watching on television, he will walk several steps and kick a soccer ball aided only by a new prosthetic exoskeleton – or mechanical suit – he controls with his brain waves via an EEG cap. He will feel his feet for the first time as tactile feedback is delivered to him about his progress. More than 170 researchers from around the world are working on the Walk Again Project, which is led by Miguel Nicolelis, a native of Brazil, and a prominent neuroscience researcher at Duke University.
We held a meeting recently in the Lory Student Center that brought together a group of interested scientists to talk about brain research at CSU. The recent anointment of neuroscience as a new CSU undergraduate degree, the increasing interest in federal agencies, industry, foundations in neuroscience (with the launch of a new BRAIN initiative at NIH, NSF, and DARPA) and its intersection with other disciplines was the inspiration for the meeting.
The mood in the room was quite energetic, enthusiastic and had an intellectual positive tension that harnessed and focused the discussion around the circle of chairs we had set up. It looked and felt like a tribal council. Engineers, chemists, biologists, sensor sciences, administrators, entrepreneurs, some mixed. One spark flew from discussions linking protein folding, prions and amyloid proteins, imaging tools and electrophysiology and sensor devices. There are aspects of biomolecular assembly (active multimeric oligomers) that are pervasive in determining biological activity of many of these species involved with brain health and acute (e.g. concussion) and chronic brain disease (e.g. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS). Interdisciplinary research in this area will also support opportunities to engineer diagnostic and therapeutic strategies from basic discoveries.
Another tribal beat was around data management and analysis (a future predictive analytical core) and whether insights from predictive analytics in other applications such as climate and weather modeling and forecasting could be brought to the table. An example was illuminated around topological data modeling (e.g. and other strategies and people including companies like Ayasdi, a recent Khosla venture) and other dimensionality reduction tools when the community increases the number of neurons or other measurements made at the brain cellular and tissue levels.
There was a lot of interest in exploring new ways to seed cross disciplinary efforts and one idea was to focus on post doctoral fellowships to support interdisciplinary collaborations. Most of all there was an urgency to build the BRAINstorm tribe at CSU and our surrounding innovation community. It is a great opportunity to build on some momentum in this area. I am of course a big supporter of this area and hope I can bring an interest in exploiting interest in discovery and translation into engineering broadly.
As many of you know we have launched a new neuroscience program at CSU. It could not have come at a more opportune time. In a world defined by very austere funding pictures, neuroscience and related technology and engineering are thriving. The recent BRAIN initiative announced by the administration with funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) [the NIH RFA is on the street] presents unique opportunities to engage in this field. Industry is engaging in new ways. For example, Qualcomm is a new player in this field, recently spinning out a new company (Brain Corp.) that will drive neuromorphic algorithms into smart phone and augmented reality applications. There are many other examples. The impact of the increased activity and investments in the brain space is broad in health and wellness, IT, computer science, and engineering. Our ability to define our goals in our new neuroscience and technology programs will be a good paradigm for seeking cross campus horizontal synergy. I have some personal experiences in this area that lead me to be excited about the potential for neuroscience, neurotechnology, and neuroengineering at CSU. These fields will lead to big problem solving, a key element of our land grant ethos. I have been privileged to lead a multidisciplinary international Walk Again project funded by the Brazilian president that will utilize brain and body signals to drive a new lower limb exoskeleton for a paralyzed person. The exoskeleton is being built in France and soon to be delivered to Brazil in preparation for a demonstration at the opening game of the world cup in June. I have been back and forth to Paris for the last 8 months and my Lipitor dose had to be increased from the brie and butter intake.
This project also gives me a great perspective on the challenges in obtaining, managing and sustaining large multidisciplinary projects. The infrastructure needed to succeed in this requires careful attention to positioning assets to compete for opportunities and to place key personnel at positions of both creativity in science and management. This is a topic we have been dialoguing on since I arrived at CSU and am eager to engage and consider new ways to support similar interests here. I believe this effort could lead to creating new diverse opportunities in thinking, practice, and sponsorship. I welcome your inputs.
I had the opportunity to visit a full day with CVMBS (including MCIN) last week and had a great time talking to faculty in the various departments about their ideas, passion, and constructive inputs on how OVPR can better serve. I want to thank Dr. Sue VandeWoude for hosting me during the day and to all the faculty who took time out of their day to put up with another administrator. These meetings are really helping me understand the fabric by which we will continue to weave our great future.