What is Neural Engineering

By Dr. Lise Johnson (CNSE Education Manager)

What exactly is Sensorimotor Neural Engineering?  That is a very good question, and one that I get asked frequently.  Inevitably when you meet someone you get to talking about what you do for a living, and if you work at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, it’s only natural for people to wonder what on Earth that is.  Some people are polite about this, while others are more direct.  A friend of mine, when I told him about the Center, asked, “Is that a real thing?”  It might be interesting at some point to contemplate why my friends would accuse me of fabricating an entire field of study, but I’ll leave that exercise for some later date.  For now, I will only say that, yes, in fact, Sensorimotor Neural Engineering is a real thing.  Saying what exactly it is will take a little bit longer.  Fortunately, that’s the sort of thing that I get paid to do, so I can afford to provide a description that is more than rearranging the word order.

Since we have the luxury of being thorough, here is what we will do.  First, I’ll define all of the constituent words: sensory, motor, neural and engineering, but not in that order and in more depth than you get from say, an online dictionary.  After that, we can string all of the words together and see if the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  Actually, I’ll just tell you now, it’s exactly the sum of its parts.  This is engineering, not art.  Engineers have a thing about efficiency, so you can be sure that when they are naming a national center, they’re going to pick a name that describes exactly what they do in as concise a way as possible.  Of course, efficiency can be aesthetic too.  But I digress. 

So, after we are done with our prerequisites, I’ll take you on a tour of some actual Sensorimotor Neural Engineering labs.  By this I mean that I will go and interview people working in the research labs that are part of the center and report back to you.  I’ll also take some photos and videos so you can get the full experience.  This will be the really fun part because we’ll get the real story from the people who are actually doing the things with the stuff.  No hype.

It might sound like this is going to be very educational.  Well, I have to confess, I am the Education Manager, so it would kind of have to be educational on some level.  However, if we have learned anything from Sesame Street, it’s that education can be entertainment.  There won’t be a lot of puppets in this blog, but if you stick with me, I hope that you will find that Sensorimotor Neural Engineering is inherently interesting, and learning more about it is so far from painful that it is actually kind of fun.  At the very least, you will be able to impress your friends with your vast wealth of new knowledge, and that is always fun.