Great minds converge to talk about neuromodulation

Neural networks, closed looped control, the transmission of information through electrical signals: it turns out neuroscience and electrical and computer engineering have more in common than you might think.

An emerging field uniting medicine and engineering is neuromodulation, whereby implanted electrical devices stimulate areas of the nervous system to relieve symptoms and treat complex neurological disorders. An example of neuromodulation is deep brain stimulation, where electrical impulses are sent from a surgically implanted device to the subthalamic nucleus to relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease such as tremor, slowed movements, and impaired posture and balance. People with epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and patients recovering from stroke are just a few of those who may benefit from advanced research in neuromodulation.

On June 2, faculty members and researchers from The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE), the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME), the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute (TRI), and the Krembil Research Institute (KRI) joined together for a workshop on neuromodulation research from the perspective of their respective fields. The purpose of the workshop was to examine the potential of the field, identify barriers to entry for those in engineering and computer science, to recognize ways in which individual scientists can contribute to the field, and to set immediate goals.

“In Canada, $105 billion is spent on diseases and injuries of the nervous system, including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain,” said Professor Milos Popovic (IBBME/TRI). “Neuromodulation has been found effective in treating these and other neurological disorders, and there is tremendous opportunity to advance these technologies.”

Participants in the workshop heard about Professor Roman Genov’s (ECE) work on implantable closed-loop neurostimulation technologies for drug-resistant epilepsy, and how Professor Paul Yoo (IBBME/ECE) is developing clinical therapies for overactive bladder using neuromodulation. Other speakers included Professors Berj Bardakjian (IBBME/ECE), Ofer Levi (IBBME/ECE), Joyce Poon (ECE), Willy Wong (ECE/IBBME) and Luca Scardovi (ECE). The workshop opened with remarks from Professor Ted Sargent (ECE), vice-dean of research for the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering and Professor Ali Sheikholeslami, ECE’s associate director of research.

“There is great potential to create a world-class centre for the research, development, application and commercialization of neuromodulation in Toronto,” said Taufik Valiante, a professor of surgery at U of T and director of the Surgical Epilepsy Program at the University Health Network (UHN). “Electrical and computer engineers can play an important role in advancing this promising field of medicine.”

The workshop concluded with a panel discussion on ways to work collaboratively to establish a new institute for the development of advanced neuroimplants and neuromodulation devices.

“Building and fostering strong collaborations at the interface of medicine and engineering is critical for addressing many of our most pressing biomedical challenges,” said Professor Christopher Yip, director of IBBME. “Neuromodulation has shown tremendous potential and realizing this potential will depend on the innovative and creative partnerships that I see emerging from this very topical and timely workshop.”

“Electrical and computer engineers are well-positioned to make significant contributions to the field of medicine and to neuromodulation in particular,” said Professor Farid Najm, chair of ECE. “This workshop was an important first step in identifying ways in which ECE can collaborate with other disciplines to help drive significant advances in neuromodulation.”

Using big data, integrated circuits and electrode arrays to help find solutions to complex medical problems? It’s just what the engineer ordered.