Neural Engineering Center becomes official, launches new seed grant program
Robert Butera and Lena Ting were there at the beginning, when neuroengineering started becoming a serious thing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. They were part of what began as a loose affiliation of faculty from diverse disciplines who made it a thing, researchers and educators with a common interest in the myriad workings of the human brain.
“What we started with over 10 years ago, the Laboratory for Neuroengineering (https://neurolab.gatech.edu/), was a self-organized collection of faculty, and we sort of built a neuroengineering community,” says Ting, professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Dept. of Biomedical Engineering. “When we started, there was really nothing else here. But over the last 10 years there’s been a lot of growth and interest in the area, through different units across campus.”
The fledgling Neural Engineering Center (http://www.neuro.gatech.edu/neural-engineering-center) at the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience was established with a mission to develop novel science and technology for measuring, understanding, modifying, and stimulating neural activity. The aim is for both clinical and scientific applications. Bottom line, says Butera: “modulating nervous system function requires new tools and new science, and our goal is to facilitate both.”
This new research center is the latest phase in a continuing Georgia Tech neuroscience evolution, which includes the aggregation and evaluation of all campus neuro-activities. “We noticed there were people all over campus doing neuroscience related research and helped launch a web site to try to identify who on campus was affiliated with neuroscience in general,” Ting says. People from all over responded. They’re from Applied Physiology, Biology, Physics, Psychology, and throughout the College of Engineering.
“The neuro initiative is a big tent,” says Butera, professor of Electrical and Computer engineering and jointly appointed in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, and co-director (with Ting) of the Neural Engineering Center (NEC). “With this center, we are narrowing our focus.”
Interest in the kind of mission the new center is pursuing has only ramped up since President Barack Obama announced his Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in April 2013, promising more than $300 million in public and private funds to support groundbreaking research that can lead to a better understanding of human brain function and new treatments or cures for a wide range of neurological disorders. Georgia Tech researchers Craig Forest and Garrett Stanley recently won $1.5 million BRAIN Initiative award when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced its first wave of investments to support the program.
And it turns out, Ting says, “Atlanta has one of the largest neuroscience communities of any city. I think Boston’s chapter of the Society of Neuroscience might be the only one bigger than Atlanta’s. Emory has a very large neuroscience program. So does Georgia State.”
The Neural Engineering Center collaborates with the Emory Neuromodulation Technology Innovation Center (ENTICe), founded by Emory researchers and clinicians who are leaders in a therapeutic procedure known as deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves sending electrical impulses through implanted electrodes to specific parts of the brain, and treats a variety of disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, tremors, dystonia, and depression.
“The clinical devices used older neural stimulation technology, and the doctors are directly facing scientific and engineering challenges in improving their procedures,” Ting says. “Through engagement with ENTICe we decided that we should really start pulling people together to establish a research center at Georgia Tech, where we could focus on the science and engineering issues around how you stimulate and modify neural activity and brain activity.”
The Neural Engineering Center will announce its ceremonial launch on October 28, 2014 with a seminar speaker in the Whitaker Building. In collaboration with the Young Innovators in Biomedical Engineering Seminar Series, the NEC will present Sridevi V. Sarma from Johns Hopkins University (11 a.m. to noon in Whitaker 1103), whose presentation is entitled, “On the Therapeutic Mechanisms of Deep Brain Stimulation for Parkinson's Disease: Why High Frequency?” The talk will be immediately followed by a reception in the Whitaker Atrium to celebrate the NEC’s opening.
But the center already has begun fine-tuning its focus, which includes the support of smart people and early-phase research that will help the NEC accomplish its mission.
“We’re going with a very different seed grant model,” says Butera.
“It’s kind of an experiment. We call it the rapid-fire seed grant,” adds Ting.
“We want people to move fast and fail quickly,” Butera quips, the basic premise being to show some research progress sooner rather than later. And there’s a backstory to the grants (http://neuro.gatech.edu/neuro-seed-grant-call).
The idea is for researchers to initiate projects and use that activity as a catalyst to reach for something bigger. The bulk of the center’s initial funding supports the rapid-fire seed grant program. The grants are limited to $5,000-$10,000, covering short-term (three months) exploratory projects that are intended to test new ideas and generate preliminary data, with an emphasis on collaborative research. The deadline for applying is November 1, 2014.
What they’d really like is to become a Science and Technology Center (STC, a National Science Foundation program). “The Neural Engineering Center is focused on a particular area in which we think we have a lot of strength. The idea is that we move forward with a coherent research program, and then we can seek large, externally funded grants,” says Ting. That was the idea when they wrote a proposal to Steve Cross, Georgia Tech’s executive vice president for research, outlining their goals and establishing NEC as a Petit Institute research center.
But, even before they were calling for rapid-fire proposals, Butera and Ting were taking the long view, planning to leverage what’s been more than 10 years of concentrated growth in neurotechnology research at Georgia Tech. Over the summer they submitted a proposal for a National Science Foundation (NSF) National Research Training Grant which would fund graduate students at Georgia Tech and Emory in the development of neuromodulation technologies.