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Neuroscience professor receives $1.5 million to study sensory information

Five-year grant to benefit paralyzed patients, advance understanding of sensory encoding

The fields of neuroscience and neurotechnology have been growing in recent years as researchers hope to understand the inner workings of the human species’ most puzzling organ: the brain. In particular, the motor cortex and its crucial role in coordinating movement has garnered attention from top scientists in the field. Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Carlos Vargas-Irwin ’02  recently received a $1.5 million, five-year New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health to fund his research that analyzes the motor cortex and potential clinical applications related to it.

The award will strongly benefit BrainGate, a joint research program between Brown, Stanford University and Case Western University that aims to help those with motor control issues and paralysis. “BrainGate is a whole endeavor to try to help paralyzed people move again,” said John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience and a principal investigator of the program.

Patient volunteers agree to become part of BrainGate research to help further the team’s understanding of the brain’s mechanisms. These volunteers are studied in controlled scenarios and receive a sensory implant in their motor cortex that collects data, Vargas-Irwin said. “They join the trial with the understanding that their experience will not necessarily help them now, … but (it will) help us develop better models for future clinical work.” Vargas-Irwin has devoted countless hours to BrainGate and has collaborated with a number of University faculty including Donoghue and Professor of Engineering Leigh Hochberg, another prinicipal investigator of the endeavor.

“Carlos is a wonderfully thoughtful and insightful neuroscientist. I’m thrilled that he’s received this new grant and honor from NIH,” Hochberg said.

The BrainGate team has used this technology to control artificial limbs. The team connects the sensory implant to technology that stimulates certain muscles in the limbs to facilitate movement, Donoghue described. By using these functional electrical stimulation systems, the team created a “physical nervous system” that allowed patients to regain movement, he added. Current technology, however, does not allow for fluid, fast or reliable movement. “The main challenge is closing that gap,” Vargas-Irwin said.

“The more we know about how the brain controls movement, the more we can make it just as natural as you or me,” Donoghue said.

Using the recently acquired grant, Vargas-Irwin and his team are implementing cameras to capture external sensory input during movement. By combining this data with information from the sensory implant, the team hopes to create a cohesive model of sensory feedback to facilitate fluid transmission and movement of the patient, Vargas-Irwin said.

Currently, Vargas-Irwin and other researchers are working toward improving the decoding of information from the motor cortex and the engineering of the technology being used, Vargas-Irwin said.

The technology in use currently necessitates a connection to a computer to allow for movement, but the team hopes to work toward placing all of the necessary technology inside of the body, Donoghue added.

“The idea would be you’re in class with somebody someday and they’d be taking notes on their laptop, and they would say: ‘A few years ago I had a spinal cord injury, but I’ve got BrainGate and now you can’t tell,’” Donoghue said. 

“Neurotechnology in general is gaining more and more interest. … It’s a very exciting field to be working in, and I really look forward to taking this technology and making a positive effect in the lives of many people across the world,” Vargas-Irwin said.


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