How Engineers Could Help Unravel the Mysteries of the Brain

An IEEE workshop focused on technologies that can help with neurological disorders

22 January 2016

Despite recent advances in neuroscience, the underlying causes of most neurological and psychiatric conditions like autism, depression, and epilepsy are still unknown. Many governments and organizations believe that getting engineers involved to develop revolutionary technologies will provide new insights into how the brain works.

That’s what’s behind several brain-related initiatives launched in recent years, including the U.S. Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies program, the European Commission’s Human Brain Project, and Japan’s Brain Mapping by Innovative Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies. IEEE also formed its own brain initiative last year. Its mission is to create workshops, develop standards, and interact with industry, governments, and academia to leverage the expertise of IEEE in order to advance world-wide efforts in brain research and neurotechnology development.

In December, I attended the first IEEE Brain Initiative workshop held at Columbia where I learned about current research as well as what IEEE’s societies and councils are doing in this area.


Keynote speaker Rafael Yuste, a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Columbia and founder of its new NeuroTechnology Center, talked about novel technologies. These include powerful imaging equipment to observe what’s happening inside the living brain. Yuste has mapped a mouse brain and pioneered the use of lasers to measure the activity of neurons in the cortex of mice. In one experiment, he said he was able to stop epileptic seizures in the rodent.

As these initiatives gear up, Yuste called for the creation of ethics panels comprised of bioethicists, legal experts, and philosophers to address human rights, personhood, and dignity.

The other keynote speaker was IEEE Fellow Jan Rabaey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He talked about brain-machine interfaces being at the core of what he called the human Intranet. BMIs are direct communication pathways between an enhanced or wired brain and an external device. These may be able to observe thousands if not millions of active neurons in a living organism known as in vivo, according to Rabaey. For example, sensor nodes could directly observe and excite neural activity in the brain and use this information to restore function for people with severe neural disabilities such as strokes, spinal cord injuries, and ALS.

He also noted the development of electronic tattoos, which are ultra-thin electronic devices that attach to the skin like a stick-on tattoo, that can be placed on an arm and used as a keyboard, gaming console, and also test a person’s stress levels

“Brain-machine interfaces will present challenges to society so technologists must start having these conversations now,” Rabaey noted.


IEEE Fellow Paul Sajda, chair of the IEEE Brain Initiative and professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at Columbia, pointed out that IEEE’s societies and councils bring a tremendous amount of leverage and expertise in developing technologies for the brain. Fifteen societies are involved in the initiative and nine were present at the workshop, including Circuits and Systems; Computational Intelligence; Consumer Electronics; Engineering in Medicine and Biology, Magnetics; Robotics and Automation; Solid-State Circuits; Systems, Man, Cybernetics; as well as the Sensors Council. EMBS is overseeing the initiative. The IEEE Standards Association and the IEEE Digital Senses Initiative are also participating.

Members of these societies and councils gave brief presentations about their group’s involvement in brain-related research as well as their own. Senior Member Timothy Constandinou of the IEEE Circuits and Systems Society pointed to the society’s annual Biomedical Circuits and Systems Conference, which presents cutting-edge research results and innovative solutions in biomedical engineering, life sciences, as well as circuits and systems to help with today’s complex health problems. Constantinou is a senior lecturer and a research fellow in the electrical and electronic engineering department at Imperial College, in London. He is developing devices that interface with neural pathways for restoring lost function in sensory, cognitive, and motor-impaired patients. 

Senior Member Roman Genov of the IEEE Solid-States Circuits Society talked about his work on brain-silicon interface for high-resolution in vitro neural recording. He is the director of the Intelligent Sensory Microsystems Laboratory at the University of Toronto. Genov’s article on this 256-channel integrated interface for simultaneous recording of distributed neural activity from acute brain slices can be found in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.

The IEEE Computational Intelligence Society is involved with the technology used for medical image analysis, and MRI and CT scans. The IEEE Magnetics Society is concerned with magnetic materials in medicine and applications to diagnose, manage, and treat diseases.

Cherry Tom, IEEE-SA emerging technology intelligence manager, talked about the need to develop standards for electroencephalograms (EEGs) and medical devices used for the brain.

“One thing that has been pretty clear across all the brain initiatives has been the importance of engineering and technology,” said Sajda

“Engineers have different training than neuroscientists or physicists,” he said. “We can help them in areas such as product and technology development, and standardization. Any one laboratory or any one scientist won’t be able to make advances; it’s going to take a community effort.” 

Watch this video for more about the IEEE Brain Initiative.

Members of the IEEE Brain Initiative talk about why its important for the organization and its members to help neuroscientists unravel the brain complex innerworkings.
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