WashU engineers to work on national BRAIN Initiative

Imagine you are a musician performing in front of a crowd and want to get a specific reaction from three particular members of the audience. What is the best way to do that?

ShiNung Ching and Jr-Shin Li in the Department of Electrical & Systems Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, are working on methods to get a specific reaction from particular cells in the brain with a new grant from the National Eye Institute. They are working with Jason T. Ritt, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University.

The two-year, $254,496 grant is part of the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovating Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a large-scale investment launched by President Barack Obama in 2013 to equip researchers with insights necessary to treat a wide array of brain disorders. In 2016, the NIH has invested more than $150 million in projects. This particular grant is designed to test high-risk, high-reward ideas that might advance scientists’ ability to manipulate neural circuits.

Researchers at the School of Medicine recently received $3.8 million in grants to understand how the brain is wired as part of the BRAIN Initiative.

Ching, assistant professor, and Li, Professor, have been working on ways to stimulate neural circuits to understand how the activity in those circuits leads to cognition and function using a method called optogenetics, which uses genetic modification to make brain cells sensitive to light. Once exposed to light, the cells are activated. While the technique has had a big impact on neuroscience, Ching said, it is primarily used to activate large numbers of cells simultaneously, instead of allowing scientists to activate a small number of particular cells at precise moments in time.

“To meet this challenge, we’ve been working on basic theory to ask whether the illumination waveforms of light intensity can be tailored to get more precise control of these circuits,” Ching says. “How can we ‘steer’ the neural activity so as to allow experimentalists to test new hypotheses?”

Ching and Li will use tools from control engineering and control theory to determine how to manipulate specific cells and develop a set of tools that allows researchers to design illumination inputs that can steer hundreds or thousands of neurons.

“One of the goals is to pursue optimal control theory at high dimensions that can provide practical solutions to control large populations of neurons,” Ching said. “We’re going to produce a platform to simulate these populations so we can test our designs, and eventually, distribute them as an open source software package.”

Ching and Li plan to hold a workshop in the summer of 2017 on neurocontrol, or how systems and control engineering methods can enable new insights in the manipulation and interpretation of neural circuit dynamics. This workshop will build on Washington University’s strengths in systems science and neuroscience research by creating a cross-cutting dialog on how engineering can meet the emerging challenges – both in terms of technology and theory – associated with understanding the human brain.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 88 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,200 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 21,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.