Awards support development of therapeutic neural interfaces

Wayne Gillam

CNT member Amy Orsborn recently received two prestigious awards that will support her interdisciplinary research aimed at developing neural devices capable of healing and restoring function in the brain and body.

It’s said that there’s often more than one way to solve a problem, and Amy Orsborn, a Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) member at the University of Washington (UW), likely knows this better than most.

Orsborn’s research focuses on building knowledge needed to engineer devices that can collaborate with dynamic, ever-changing networks in the brain. At the CNT, she investigates how the brain learns to interact with and control a neural interface.

My focus within the CNT is on how the brain learns to interact with devices and how that learning influences the function of the brain. So, could we restore function by changing the connectivity in the brain?

— CNT member Amy Orsborn

“I like to say that my lab works on the same problems, but we approach them from two different directions,” Orsborn said. “One is that we put on our engineering hats and think about how to design a device to interact with the brain, and the other side is that we examine the brain and discover how it’s interacting with the device.”

Over the last few years, Orsborn has received several research awards, including a 2016 L’Oréal USA For Women in Science Fellowship, which recognized her work developing neuroprosthetics (see the video below). She also received a related L’Oréal USA Changing the Face of STEM mentoring grant in 2019, which supports her mentorship group, Women in Neural Engineering.

Orsborn continues to make significant contributions to a large body of knowledge encompassing neuroscience and engineering, which is needed for development of therapeutic neural interfaces. These specialized devices — such as deep brain stimulators — assist the brain with healing and restoring function after injury, impacting a wide range of medical conditions and neurological disorders. In 2020, Orsborn received two more awards that acknowledge her accomplishments and will help further research in this area.

Clinical applications for neural devices

Most recently, Orsborn was inducted into the 2020 Interdisciplinary Rehabilitation Engineering Research Career Development Program, which recruits and trains scholars with engineering and other quantitative backgrounds to become successful rehabilitation scientists. The program aims to provide scholars with an in-depth understanding of patient-centered clinical problems, career development and mentoring opportunities. It comes with a $125K award that will help Orsborn explore a broader range of clinical applications for her lab’s engineering-based research work.

The broader goals of rehabilitation, in particular, fit very well into a lot of the goals of engineered plasticity that are really core to the center.

— CNT member Amy Orsborn

“Most of my current work is focused very specifically on the goal of trying to restore function to people through a neural interface, but there are potential opportunities to explore using neural interfaces for rehabilitation,” Orsborn said. “So, rather than trying to fully replace a function that’s been lost through some new, artificial device, you could use these devices temporarily to change nervous system function and stimulate the brain to heal itself.”

The award will also support Orsborn’s research focused on understanding how the brain learns to control a neural interface and how that learning process changes plasticity and connectivity inside the brain. Her lab will be using electrical stimulation techniques to explore how large areas of the brain rewire themselves as they learn to control the device, as well as optogenetics to look at connectivity between network neurons.

Artificial neural networks inform our understanding of the brain, and vice versa

Orsborn also received a 2020 Google Faculty Research Award along with UW alumnus Guillaume Lajoie, an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics at Université de Montréal. This award aims to recognize and support world-class faculty pursuing cutting-edge research, and it provides seed funding to support one graduate student for one year.

In this case, the graduate student will be in Lajoie’s lab, but the award will benefit the Orsborn Lab as well by kickstarting a unique collaboration. Insights from Lajoie’s research studying artificial neural networks will be applied to Orsborn’s work studying how the brain learns to control engineered devices. One area of focus will be to analyze pre-existing lab data, looking for computational signatures of learning that have been identified in artificial neural networks and checking to see if the same signatures also exist in the brain. Another will be to identify ways artificial neural networks are adjusted by their human creators to become more robust problem-solvers and assess whether or not some of these same methods could be applied when assisting the brain with learning how to operate a neural interface.

“From our perspective, they [Lajoie’s lab] are bringing their expertise and understanding of artificial neural networks to provide insights into new directions we might want to explore,” Orsborn said. “For instance, they might really help inform design of new experiments.”

Interestingly, the collaboration goes the other way as well. Insights gained from Orsborn’s research will also be used by Lajoie to better understand, build and improve upon already-existing artificial neural networks.

“A lot of this project centers around trying to link biological networks with what we understand about artificial networks, really drilling-down into computational principles,” Orsborn said. “That’s ultimately going to be very relevant for Google from the perspective of how to make artificial networks more efficient and robust, improving them beyond what they’ve already been able to achieve.”

Awards for interdisciplinary research

These awards, and in particular the Google Faculty Research Award, fill a much-needed gap in funding opportunities for engineers and scientists who are focusing on interdisciplinary research.

“Multiple funders might be interested in your research, but what they are often interested in is just a portion of it. They have prescribed portfolios,” Orsborn said. “Google’s funding is really helpful for these sorts of highly interdisciplinary projects, where the applications are absolutely there, but you have to do some legwork to prove that point.”

And using support that the awards provide to develop therapeutic neural interfaces capable of achieving wide human impact remains at the top of Orsborn’s mind.

“It’s a great opportunity to establish new research directions,” Orsborn said, “but one of the reasons I was most excited to receive these awards, is because it will push our research in directions that would potentially influence and benefit a much broader population of people.”

To learn more about Amy Orsborn and her research work, visit the Orsborn Lab website.