Five Questions With: Arto Nurmikko

A professor of engineering at Brown University talks about the development of a fully implantable and rechargeable wireless brain sensor capable of relaying real-time broadband signals. More

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life sciences

Five Questions With: Arto Nurmikko

Posted 3/11/13

A team of neuroengineers based at Brown University has developed a fully implantable and rechargeable wireless brain sensor capable of relaying real-time broadband signals from up to 100 neurons in freely moving subjects.

Several copies of the novel low-power device have been performing well in animal models for more than year, a first in the brain-machine interface field.

Arto Nurmikko, a professor of engineering at Brown who oversaw the device’s invention, presented it recently at the 2013 international workshop on Clinical Brain-Machine Interface Systems in Houston.

Providence Business News asked Nurmikko to talk about the importance of the new brain sensor, which he likened to a cell phone, except that the conversation that is being sent out “is the brain talking wirelessly.”

PBN: What are the advantages of the new implantable, rechargeable wireless brain sensor and how it will be used in brain research?

NURMIKKO: Our new device enables recording neural data from a moving subject, opening up the future possibility for severely disabled persons of a much enhanced mobility – at home, in a moving vehicle, or other mobile settings.

PBN: Is this a potentially important tool to be used in the proposed brain mapping initiative? Why?

NURMIKKO: With this device, we can now begin to study brain circuits in animal models under more naturalistic conditions, where the operating environment is less restricted physically.

PBN: Who owns the intellectual property for this device? Is there a potential to develop a commercial enterprise as a result of this work in Rhode Island?

NURMIKKO: Brown University owns the principal intellectual property. As part of the overall roadmap, we are looking forward to potential licensing of the technology to medical device companies. If that can take place in Rhode Island, so much for the better.

PBN: You describe the new brain sensor as being somewhat akin to a cell phone. Could you explain the comparison?

NURMIKKO: Really it's like a cell phone only in the sense that the “brain language” has been converted to a digital, and hence robust, stream of data (lots of ones and zeros) , and it is wirelessly transmitted to a nearby receiver. That happens at very high data rate, at that, beyond what you get for example as a subscriber with Cox or Verizon on the Internet.

But an important distinction is that unlike the cell phone, we only want to transmit this type of information over a short range, on the order of meters, for any number of safety and security-related reasons.

PBN: Will the new sensor have any impact on the NIH Connectome initiative now underway to study the brain's wiring?

NURMIKKO: The Connectome project is more focused on mapping the brain structure, or architecture, while the brain activity map project includes goals of understanding how such structures actually process information as functioning neural “computers.”

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