Engineering Brains to be Healthier

The IEEE Brain Initiative is helping to advance research in neurological disorders

31 October 2016

How the most complex organ in the body, the human brain, functions remains a mystery, despite advances in neuroscience. Nevertheless, many believe that technology is the key to new treatments for brain-related disorders. That’s what’s behind several 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. Privately funded projects include the Allen Institute for Brain Science, founded by IEEE Member Paul G. Allen, cofounder of Microsoft.

IEEE launched its own initiative in 2015: IEEE Brain. Its mission is to leverage the organization’s expertise to advance worldwide efforts in research and technology through workshops, standards, and collaboration with industry, governments, and academia. The initiative was established by the IEEE Future Directions Committee, IEEE’s R&D arm.

“What’s different about these new brain initiatives is that their organizers realize it will take technology—not only biology and neuroscience—to make advances,” says IEEE Fellow Paul Sajda, chair of IEEE Brain and professor of biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, and radiology at Columbia. “What better organization than IEEE to play a role in developing, validating, and standardizing these technologies?”


Working on technologies for the brain is nothing new for IEEE: 16 societies and councils are involved in brain-related activities. For example, the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, which oversees the initiative, is the world’s largest society of biomedical engineers. Many are working on brain technologies. The IEEE Computational Intelligence Society is involved with the technology for medical image analysis and MRI and CT scans, which are often made of the brain. The IEEE Magnetics Society is concerned with applications to diagnose, manage, and treat diseases, including brain ailments.

IEEE Brain is coordinating all IEEE activities in the field.

“We’ll be the focal point to tie everything together and make the technologies more visible,” Sajda says. “It’s an opportunity to communicate what IEEE has to offer to those involved with brain projects.”

To get the word out about what IEEE’s societies and councils are doing in the field, IEEE Brain held its first workshop in December at Columbia University. And over the course of this year IEEE Brain has sponsored seven events in conjunction with IEEE conferences. The most recent was the IEEE Workshop on Advanced NeuroTechnologies for BRAIN Initiatives, scheduled for this month in San Diego. Neurotechnologies, which can capture, transmit, and record signals from the brain, are used for rehabilitation purposes in conjunction with prosthetics and cognitive training. Most of the events at the workshop focused on brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), also called brain-computer interface (BCI) systems. They sense signals in the brain and decode the activity into a form that could, for example, control a prosthetic device.

Other BMIs under development might improve neurological and psychiatric conditions, like Parkinson’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression, according to Sajda. “By recording a patient’s brain activity,” he says, “therapies can be developed using electroceuticals, which are implanted sensors that stimulate the peripheral nervous system.”

BMIs also might be able to help enhance an able-bodied person’s performance by improving situational awareness and decision-making, and even anticipation of another’s actions. It could, for example, help distracted drivers better control their vehicle.


Before BMIs can become available to the public, standards are needed. The IEEE Standards Association, which has dozens of standards on medical devices and related technologies, is participating in the initiative.

BCIs have “a set of design constraints, including power requirements, that differ from a lot of other medical devices,” Sajda notes. “The interfaces might lead to commercial applications—which would certainly require new standards.”

The initiative also hopes to excite budding engineers about brain technologies. This year IEEE Brain sponsored several hackathons, where engineering students vied for cash prizes for the best working prototypes.

The brain initiative is also forming think tanks composed of IEEE members and others who can serve as experts for organizations such as government science groups, funding agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and startups. The think tanks could develop strategic reports and road maps to guide through policy and funding the development of critical technologies.

“The think tanks will allow us to integrate all of IEEE’s expertise,” Sajda says, “and let other organizations know what we have to offer.”

This article is part of our November 2016 special issue on technologies for the brain.

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