The understanding of the brain’s circuitry is one of the few uncharted territories of the human body. The sheer complexity of the brain has led to the development of innovative new tools to enhance understanding of the brain’s function. It is hoped that the work on implantable devices to measure, record and interpret brain activity can lead to new discoveries about brain-related illnesses such as autism, Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Jeffrey Ashe trained as an electrical engineer and is a principal engineer in the Biomedical Electronic Systems Laboratory at GE Global Research. He gives a unique insight into this highly specialized field and his hopes for the future. Jeffrey initially started out at GE Aerospace working on radar systems, primarily on electronics and signal processing. Today, as a systems engineer at GE Global Research, his work includes placing electrical EEG/ECG sensors on the surface of the body measuring the tiny signals, interpreting them and sending the results back to a clinician.
You have recently entered into a collaboration with Brown University? What does that involve and what do you hope to achieve or create as a result of this partnership?
Yes, we’ve recently started a collaboration with Brown University. They’re very experienced in this area having worked in this area for over a decade and experimenting with implants in people for a number of years. We want to be able to listen to the electrical signals of the brain, decode them, and be able to use that signal for control of assistive devices or paralyzed limbs to replace lost function as a result of injury or disease.
We want to work with key leaders in the field, such as Brown University, and leverage our knowledge and know-how in patient monitoring, where we’ve created non non-invasive, wearable and wireless medical devices. We’re also bringing significant expertise in microelectronics. This technology has considerable impact to our Ultrasound, MRI and CT machines and is one of the reasons they can perform at such a high level. So when you think about tiny implantable devices that can go directly into the brain, we’re really leveraging what we already know and do in microelectronics and patient monitoring. Brown University was very interested in working with a large industrial partner to focus on the quality and reliability aspect of manufacturing. I’d say they were equally interested in working with GE as we were interested in working with them given their unique expertise.
Could you briefly explain the implants you are developing and how they support studies of brain circuitry? How might they be applied to future treatments for TBI?
Our collaborators at Brown University are working to restore motor control in paralyzed individuals. They’re looking at trying to decode the signals the brain sends and receives in controlling motion and take that outside the body via an external device that can mimic these signals thus restoring motor control.
Regarding TBI, we’re not actively working with neural recording at this point. Certainly there are similarities with our learnings, tools and developments that should apply across the broad range of brain disorders. Our sensors are tiny and are able to record the electrical signals coming from individual neurons. Being able to record and separate the signals from the individual neurons, we will be able to interpret the functions the neurons are producing or the functions the neurons should be producing. From a recording perspective, being able to see large collections of these individual signals, it’s going to help a whole host of people understand the nature of diseases and injuries, such as TBI, and eventually come up with a way to speak to the brain to correct lost function.
Do you think these implants could have medical uses for other brain disorders?
There is definitely interest in how these implants could benefit those with neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Once we can understand the brain’s language, we’ll be able to understand the nature of how a particular disease has affected a certain function.
Can you place a level as to how advanced our understanding of brain circuitry is?
The understanding within the research community is growing every day. Tools such as MRI have long been applied in this field with ever increasing resolution for seeing anatomy and function. Combining these tools together with what’s happening at the micro-scale, I think we’re on the cusp of building new understanding of this organ. If we use the analogy of bricks in a building, knowing a lot about only a brick doesn’t mean you could build a house or understand its functional structure. Today we know a lot about individual neurons, how they function and how they carry out electrical and chemical signaling but we don’t know how they’re all interconnected.
Can you see any innovations at the moment, which may be in its early stages that may become something quite special in the future, regarding the treatment of TBI?
The military has certainly been at the forefront of much neurological research especially with prosthetics controlled by muscle or neural signals. This is not just happening with prosthetics but also in surgery with limb transplants, where they can actually connect the nerves to restore function and even restore feeling. As we continue to collectively build our tools and understanding, future scientists and engineers will be able to address many different types of disease and injury.