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The human brain is one of the most complex systems in all of nature. With an estimated 100 billion neurons and 1 quadrillion plastic synaptic connections, our brains provide us with a remarkable capacity for coordinating precise movements, contemplating abstract thought, and sensing an ever changing world around us. While the human brain has tremendous potential to interact with its external environment, our body often limits what we can accomplish and our brain often fails to correct disorder generated within itself. The recent explosion of neurotechnology for basic science research and healthcare has opened new and exciting opportunities to create bi-directional neural interfacing systems that can directly link our brains with the outside world. For example, brain-computer interfaces are enabling people to use their own brain activity to send e-mails without the need for a keyboard. Children with dystonia who once were unable to tie their shoes are now able to lead normal lives because of implantable devices that electrically stimulate a small region of their brain. Individuals with auditory or visual disabilities are now able to hear and see with synthetic systems that transduce sensory stimuli into brain activity.
These neural interface technologies can and will increase productivity, create opportunities, and improve quality of life, but innovation and refinement of these systems is inefficient and gradual because we lack a fundamental understanding of the neuroscience behind brain-device interactions. Faculty at the University of Minnesota (UMN) are on the forefront of these challenges. The Neuroengineering (NE) IGERT is motivated by the notion that future breakthroughs in this rapidly-growing area of research will be made by engineers who understand the fundamental issues and principles of neuroscience, and by neuroscientists who are truly competent in engineering concepts and tools. The NE IGERT will train doctoral students to develop the skills to revolutionize technologies for interfacing with the brain and advance our understanding of the neuroscience processes that arise when we interface with and modulate the brain.
The National Academy of Engineering has identified reverse engineering the brain as one of the grand challenges of the 21st century. The NE IGERT will prepare doctoral students in the fundamental underpinnings of neuroengineering and train them to develop the fundamental skills needed to engineer the brain and nervous systems. The education and training components of the NE IGERT is designed to provide interdisciplinary graduate education and training in the emerging field of neuroengineering to a diverse group of doctoral students who may major in biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or neuroscience.
This IGERT aims to transform (and accelerate) the process of innovating functional neural interface technologies. The intellectual merits of the NE IGERT project are to:
IGERT fellows will investigate how to use neuronal dynamics, neuronal plasticity, learning, and attention mechanisms as feedback tools to innovate and optimize future neural interface technologies. Fellows will obtain integrative training on multi-scale approaches, from single neurons to cellular networks to behavior to address the challenges of engineering the brain from systems perspectives. Fellows will be trained in both engineering development and neuroscience investigations in experimental animal models and in human subjects.
The objectives of the training program are two-fold:
We believe this training program will benefit both students and faculty from multiple disciplines. Our program will lower the barriers to interdisciplinary, collaborative research by training students with diverse biological and quantitative backgrounds to possess expertise in multiple fields so that going forward they can serve as catalysts for the cross-fertilization of neuroscience with engineering sciences. Our trainees will be well prepared for both academic and industrial challenges, and will be competitive candidates for academic, industry and government careers. Above all, they will make significant contributions to the research and development of neuroengineering.
We will train IGERT fellows based on rich programs of ~30 faculty from brain sciences (neuroscience, neurology, neurosurgery, radiology, psychology and psychiatry) and engineering sciences (biomedical, electrical, and mechanical engineering). The wide spectrum of available faculty expertise allows students to receive training with both breadth and depth in neuroscience and engineering.
The NE IGERT has several innovative graduate education training features. Students will have dual-advisors (one from engineering, and one from basic or translational neuroscience) and training plans that integrate academic/scientific training with a strong applications component. IGERT trainees will have opportunities to rotate through clinical labs at the University of Minnesota and its affiliated medical centers; to immerse themselves in an industrial setting through summer internships at neurotechnology companies.
The broader impacts will be reflected in the blurred boundary between neuroscientists and engineers through the training of a new generation of leaders who can competently and confidently tackle the grand challenges in basic and translational neuroscience with engineering principles and approaches. This training program will specifically train doctoral students to meet the interdisciplinary, collaborative, and global challenges of the future. Neuroengineering is an emerging field that exemplifies the need for future researchers to be adaptable to continuous change. It is anticipated that trainees of the NE IGERT will become future leaders who are the catalysts for future brain technology innovations.
Advancing our ability to interact with the brain has broad, fundamental impact on the health and well being of the general population. It is estimated that 100 million U.S. citizens will have a significant brain-related disorder in their lives. There is a need to train the next generation of neuroengineering scientists who can appreciate the important problems facing neuroscience research and clinical applications, and at the same time, understand the principles and technical challenges of engineering sciences. Such interdisciplinary training is essential for furthering the advancement in neuroscience research and for rapid translation of neuroengineering research into human applications, all of which will invariably lead to reduced suffering, improved quality of life, and lowered health care costs.