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NSF Engineering invests to understand, protect, and harness the power of the brain

Perspective of the NSF Assistant Director for Engineering

May 1, 2014

In recent years, higher-resolution imaging techniques and sensors and cutting-edge tools such as optogenetics have enabled unprecedented access to the human nervous system. The knowledge gained from these endeavors has also inspired researchers to reverse engineer the brain's computational power to create new technologies that learn and adapt like the human brain. Despite these successes, a number of challenges remain ahead in our quest to understand, protect, and harness the power of the brain.

In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering identified the goal of reverse engineering the brain as one of fourteen "grand challenges" for 21st century engineers, encouraging engineering research that advances our understanding of the nervous system and seeks to replicate the brain's incredible processing capabilities.

The NSF Directorate for Engineering has long supported basic brain research through efforts including the NSF-wide Cognitive Science and Neuroscience Initiative. From designing new biocompatible materials to developing better sensors and neural prosthetics, our grantees create new ways to tap into the brain and help drive the development of new brain-based technologies. Complementing these efforts, NSF-funded engineers are also working to incorporate models and computing platforms that mimic the brain's robust and adaptive learning processes into complex engineered systems.

Capitalizing on the momentum of recent brain research, on April 2, 2013, President Obama unveiled a new research challenge, the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which could lead to new therapies for conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, autism, and traumatic brain injury, and may ultimately enable the next generation of brain-inspired engineered systems.

Coordinating with the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and several private institutions, the National Science Foundation and the Directorate for Engineering have committed to meeting the challenges outlined in this bold new initiative via the NSF Understanding the Brain Initiative.

Challenges and Opportunities in Brain Research
Current sensing and imaging techniques require one to choose between capturing the exact signal from a precise brain region (high spatial resolution) or collecting information in real-time (high temporal resolution). The very highest resolution technologies also tend to be more invasive and/or expensive, reducing their real-world utility. Before we can truly understand the brain, we will need to develop techniques that allow for high resolution brain activity monitoring in real-time, without costly equipment or surgical interventions.

These and other "grand challenges" in the area of human brain mapping were discussed in detail at a 2013 workshop sponsored by the NSF Directorate for Engineering. The workshop report was published in the November 2013 issue of IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.

The future of brain research will also be influenced by new materials that interact with the body in completely novel ways. These will range from degradable scaffolds that guide spinal neurons across injured regions, to nanoparticles that will shepherd therapeutic drugs to the brain, to custom-manufactured biocompatible implants.

Another challenge is the need to synthesize information collected at different scales into a complete picture of brain activity. From communications between individual neurons to high-level activity patterns across neural networks, integrating data from various levels, collected via a number of techniques, will be essential to understanding brain function as a whole. Mathematical models and theoretical simulations of brain activity will also be critical in advancing our understanding of the brain.

As our understanding of the brain increases, advances in engineering and materials science will also influence and inform the next generation of neural prosthetic and assistive devices. New biocompatible materials, integrated circuits, and better sensors will enable more responsive, adaptable devices that seamlessly interface with the human nervous system.

The knowledge gained from fundamental brain research will also inform ongoing work that seeks to reverse engineer the brain's robust and efficient computational power. Brain-inspired computing, "smart" technologies, and advances in artificial intelligence will likely flourish as we begin to understand and replicate brain activity.

The complex nature of each of these endeavors highlights an additional challenge: the need to train future scientists, engineers, and clinicians that are both competent in their respective fields, and collaborative in nature. Cross-disciplinary training and education will also be essential for advancing future brain research.

Expanding the Frontiers of Neuroengineering
NSF and the Directorate for Engineering are working to meet these challenges by supporting research that expands the frontiers of neurotechnology and neuroengineering.

Some promising frontier research areas, with examples of funding opportunities, are listed below:

The Engineering Directorate also supports center-based activities that leverage academic and industrial partnerships to advance critical areas of research.

Engineering Research Centers (ERCs), interdisciplinary, multi-institutional centers that combine discovery and innovation, represent one such endeavor. Of the current ERCs, three are pursuing research that will likely influence our understanding of the brain:

A number of graduated ERCs have also made great advances in brain research. For example, researchers at the Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems ERC contributed to the development of the first FDA-approved bionic eye retinal prosthesis system, bringing new hope to individuals who have lost sight as a result of severe to profound retinitis pigmentosa. Other NSF-funded ERCs that have contributed to this field include:

Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRCs) represent another type of center-based research investment. These centers conduct research that is directly relevant to industrial and government partners. Centers that are currently working on research with potential neuroengineering applications include:

The Engineering Directorate's Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research Innovation (EFRI), dedicated to advancing cutting edge engineering research, has also supported a number of special solicitations designed to address brain-related research questions. These include:

Working Together to Understand the Brain
The Directorate for Engineering also participates in a number of collaborative efforts to advance brain research.

For example, the Engineering Directorate provides support for the National Academy of Sciences' Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders. The Forum works to build partnerships and enable interdisciplinary research, bringing together leaders from the academic research community, federal agencies, private sector sponsors, and consumers to discuss key challenges in neuroscience research.

The Center of Excellence for Learning in Education, Science, and Technology (CELEST), established in partnership with the Social, Behavioral, and Economics Directorate, serves as another example of a strategic partnership in this arena. Like other Science of Learning Centers, the goal of CELEST is to make transformative advances in learning through integrated research. CELEST is specifically charged with advancing our understanding of how the brain learns, and developing novel, brain-inspired technologies.

Together, I believe these strategic investments will transform our understanding of the brain, paving the way for techniques that will improve and augment brain function, and informing brain-inspired design.

Dr. Pramod Khargonekar
NSF Assistant Director for Engineering

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