UCI Secures NSF Funding for Brain-Computer Interface

A man sits in silence as the people around him observe expectantly. Slowly, he eases off the seat, and walks. Tears begin to flow from his eyes. Cheers and applause fill up the room. For years, he’d been a paraplegic and now, he had easily regained the ability to walk. While this astounding event seems to be ripped from the pages of a science-fiction novel, it is no longer a distant possibility thanks to the efforts of UCI’s researchers.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded $8 million dollars to a UCI-led consortium to develop a brain-computer interface. Principal Investigator Payam Heydari, along with co-principal investigators Zoran Nenadic and An Do, will be working with other researchers from the California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California. This provides an excellent opportunity to further our understanding of the body and perfect a supplementary interface to aid people with spinal cord injury. The funding comes with the ability to make even greater progress in neurorehabilitation, marking a step in the right direction.

After all, just two years ago, Nenadic and Do had led the proof-of-concept study to help a paralyzed male participant walk again. Although he was completely paralyzed in his both legs for five years, after many months of mental and physical training, he was able to walk along a 12-foot course. The results of this preliminary study helped pave the way for the $8 million dollars granted by the NSF. Brain-computer interface systems, like the earliest form of the computer, started out large and relatively bulky but Professor Heydari’s lab worked on the circuitry to help scale down these components.

Just why is the implication of this work so significant? Well, consider that spinal cord injuries cost the U.S “roughly $50 billion per year in primary and secondary healthcare expenditures,” a figure cited by Heydari. The preliminary 2015 study was a non-invasive one; there were no implants or extensive surgery to facilitate the communication between the brain and the interface and the legs. Thus, the next logical step is to continue scaling down the technology so that it can be safely implanted. Successful implantation would open up the doors to more multi-disciplinary cooperation. The marriage of medicine and engineering could have vast beneficial repercussions in driving up our base level of knowledge as more and more knowledge gets shared.

Spinal cord injuries can be debilitating as they have a great impact on quality of life and a person’s independence. Addressing these injuries with novel technology can hopefully help treat many types of patients. While having a proof of concept is a worthwhile activity, the data will be crowded out of the oversaturated research market. Follow-up, revision and improvements are essential for the advancement of medical technology. Unless such improvements are made, the efforts of those working towards a solution will be wasted.

Detractors of the brain-computer interface include those who believe that it will take a significant amount of resources – time and funding – to achieve further breakthroughs in this field. While the development of an implantable and safe technology has many hurdles, it is by continually supporting research in this topic that we can strive for paradigm shifts in how we treat spinal cord injury patients.

In advancing the brain-computer interface, there will be a point where the technology is effective – yet, the price for the implant will be high and thus available to a disproportionate amount of the population. For the true effect of the research to impact patients, it needs to be accessible. Like early TVs and phones, this technology can start out expensive and gradually become more affordable. However, to get to that point, the interface’s components must be smaller, more efficient and cheaper to produce–a goal that is more achievable with NSF funding.

The great benefit of having a fully implantable brain-computer interface is that it would “work around the clock” and have access to stronger brain signals. Consequently, this will result in a much greater control of movement (Nenadic). A successful development of the interface could have broader applications. We could tailor the interface and the knowledge we’ve gained from building it to help others afflicted by traumatic brain injury or strokes. A bionic suit that could help paraplegics walk sounds eerily similar to Iron Man, a comic creation. Yet, as technology advances, so must the methods of the scientists on the verge of these discoveries. I’m excited to see the final product of the brain-computer interface and watch it realize its potential – to provide help to millions of individuals.

Eashan Kotha is a second-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at ekotha@uci.edu.