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Neuroengineering: A Glimpse into the Mind

Lakshmi Raju

Neuroengineering, or Neural Engineering is a complex and vast subject that has yet to be fully understood. The branch of science only really emerged and started rapidly growing within the last decade. The first neuroengineering journals, such as The Journal of Neural Engineering, were created in 2004 ("Journal of Neural Engineering"). Neuroengineering, at its most basic level, is the use of an engineering approach to understand and work with neural networks and functions ("Neuroengineering"). Neurons employ electrochemical pulses to communicate with each other. By utilizing this information, engineers try to develop methods to capture and understand the signals, to mimic these signals, or to modify the signals to produce a better result. The applications of neuroengineering span far and wide, from studying the neurons on a cellular level to clinically applying learned knowledge and transforming it into implantable devices that can internally alter neural functions, or connect to external systems.

Neuroengineering is a science placed under the field of biomedical engineering, but that doesn't mean that only engineers study it. The field requires clinical, computational, and experimental neuroscience, signal processing - a field in electrical engineering - along with robotics, nanotechnology, and materials science ("Medical & Biological Engineering Glossary"). It is a field that is a conglomeration of sciences, a field so specific, and yet so broad. With this field, we have the potential to help people with neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's, regenerate neural tissue after traumatic brain or spinal cord injury, or even restore or augment missing neural functions with prostheses ("Neuroengineering"). All of this research is being done at Georgia Tech.

At Georgia Tech we have numerous labs focused on Neuroengineering, we have faculty from many different departments and fields working together to find answers, and make a difference. In the NeuroLab at Georgia Tech, Dr. LaPlaca's lab is researching injury biomechanics as it related to traumatic brain injury. - There are over 2 million traumatic brain injuries every year in the US, and the number may actually be higher when mild brain injuries, or concussions, are considered ("Traumatic Brain Injury"). The group is focused on understanding how the brain cells take traumatic loads and "transduce" them into cellular signals. When the brain cells, or neurons, fail structurally and functionally, this is termed the cell tolerance (LaPlaca). A better understanding of how cells and tissues respond to injury can help develop better protection systems. In addition, Dr. LaPlaca, in conjunction with colleagues at Emory University, has developed a shortened, objective tool to assess neurological impairment associated with concussion and is currently testing the device in athletics (LaPlaca).

In the field of neural prostheses, Dr. Pamela Bhatti, an electrical engineer, is leading a group of researchers in creating next generation cochlear implants (Thompson). A cochlear implant is a surgically inserted device that generates signals and directly stimulates the auditory nerve, bypassing damaged tissue. Current implants contain between 12 and 22 electrodes, increasing the number of electrodes would result in a clearer signal (Thompson). Dr. Bhatti's research is aimed towards creating a better interface between the implant and the brain to enhance the quality of sound from the implant. Her group has developed a much more sensitive electrode array for a cochlear implant that will undergo rigorous testing before humans can use it (Thompson).

Georgia Tech has many faculty and researchers at the forefront of their fields working in Neuroengineering. The field is multidisciplinary and requires much interdepartmental work but so far has produced amazing results. There are projects that have been researched for years, such as the cochlear implants, and some just beginning, but each and every venture is created and followed through by very passionate and smart people -- giving every reason to believe in great advancements happening here at Tech.


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