“A new field of research has emerged. It’s known as neuroengineering. Basically, it’s where neuroscientists meet engineers, and Rice will be at the forefront.”
“Neuroengineering is an emerging discipline that explores engineering techniques to understand, repair, assist and re-engineer the human nervous system,” said Reginald DesRoches, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Engineering. “It has tremendous potential for such applications as treating neurological diseases, cochlear and retinal implants, and neuroprosthetics.”
The program, to be housed on the eighth and ninth floors of the Bioscience Research Collaborative (BRC), includes 26 researchers representing seven engineering departments and the Department of Psychology at Rice, and others from the University of Texas Health Science Center and Baylor College of Medicine. A third of the initiative’s researchers are drawn from ECE.
“This makes perfect sense,” Aazhang said. “Our brain is an electrical circuit with electrochemical reactions that generate pulses. Our neurons communicate with these pulses.”
assistant professor of ECE and of bioengineering at Rice, has been exploring the porous boundary between traditional electrical engineering and the neurosciences since his undergraduate days. Part of the reason he came to Rice in 2012 was to do research with the senior faculty already working with neuroscientists and clinicians at the Texas Medical Center.
“This new university-wide initiative,” Kemere said, “is a logical outgrowth of that same vision, with an expanded vision of the investigators and projects that fit. There’s a recognition that the algorithms/systems employed in medical devices are sometimes decades beyond the cutting edge. Improving them requires academic technologists to be actively engaged with experimentalists/clinicians.”
Aazhang describes the human brain as a “statistical inference engine.” By using such strategies as neuroimaging, high-throughput genomics, optical imaging, data modeling and metabolomics, he expects researchers to apply advanced engineering techniques to increase our understanding of such disorders as Parkinson’s disease, aphasia, epilepsy and depression.
“There are more than a thousand disorders of the nervous system affecting at least a billion people in the world today,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, Howard R. Hughes Provost and Professor of Statistics at Rice. “Rice already has strength in multiple relevant disciplines – nanotechnology, data science, machine learning, signal processing, imaging and nanophotonics.”
The university is investing approximately $50 million to launch its neuroengineering initiative, according to Kathy Collins, Rice’s vice president for finance. That figure includes hiring five new tenured/tenure-track faculty members across several departments, and their associated startup costs.
“Initially it will about $1 million in annual costs, increasing over time, with $3.5 million in startups. We will be building out space in the BRC, at an estimated cost of $8 million. There will be an allocation for research equipment -- about $5 million over two years - and approximately $500,000 in annual funding to support programming. That would include post-docs, graduate students and support for undergraduate research programs,” Collins said.
Miranda and Aazhang both noted that undergraduates and graduate students at Rice have expressed strong interest in neuroengineering.
“Our students know we have better computational power. We can simulate physical systems better,” Aazhang said. “And we have devices that can be at the same scale as neurons that could interact with our neurons. We have much more sophisticated imaging technologies. The technology has reached a stage where we can effectively interact with our brains.”
One member of Aazhang’s lab is Joseph Young, a fourth-year graduate student in ECE. “We are the tool-developing people,” Young said. “We learn what the doctors and researchers need and try to develop the tools they want. The brain is electrical. We understand electricity. We can help them, for instance, relate brain rhythms to specific activities. This is the most interesting field to be in right now.”
More information about the initiative can be found at neuroengineering.rice.edu.