CSNE BrainTech Journal

In this Journal, Dr. Lise Johnson, CSNE university education manager and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, explores the concepts behind sensorimotor neural engineering and takes a closer look at CSNE research.


I am old enough to remember when all telephones had wires. You didn’t carry them around in your pocket because they were too big and they had a cable coming out the back that plugged into the wall. If you disconnected the cable from the phone or the wall, the phone didn’t work. You could also cut the wire to disable the phone, and this frequently happened in horror films. I tell you all of this not so that you can understand horror films better, but because it makes a great analogy for a spinal cord injury.

At the end of my last post I left you with the question of whether or not electrical stimulation could be used to provide somatosensory feedback for a brain-computer interface. If you read my last post, then you already know that it’s possible to artificially evoke sensations by electrically stimulating a particular part of the brain such as the primary somatosensory cortex. It may seem like this answers the question already, but like so many things in life, it’s more complicated than it seems. Before we can use electrical stimulation as a substitute for natural sensory feedback, we need to consider how electrical stimulation works.

Jeff Ojemann’s father is a neurosurgeon, and his mother is a neurologist, which means he was exposed to brain science from a young age. There is a funny story his family tells about how, as a young child, Ojemann found a brain anatomy book his mother had left out, and after reading it he mispronounced “cerebellum” as “cere-button” (many children have trouble with pronunciation; when I was a small child I couldn’t pronounce my own name). So, you might think that he always wanted to be a neurosurgeon, or a neurologist, or some sort of doctor, but in fact, he did not.

When we think about spinal cord injury (SCI) we often, quite naturally, focus on the fact that it causes paralysis. One of the most obvious effects of an SCI is an impaired ability to move. Consequently, when we think about improving the quality of life for people with SCI, we think about ways to restore that ability. In the context of neural engineering this often means building motor neuroprostheses – devices that capture brain signals and use them to control an external device (like a robotic arm). This is, of course, very important, but it turns out to be only half of the story.

Bill Shain is a neural engineer now, but that isn’t what he started out to be. For one thing, when Shain was deciding what he wanted to be when he grew up, neural engineering didn’t exist. There were people doing some proto-neural engineering, but Shain started out on a different track entirely. As an undergraduate at Amherst College he developed an interest in embryology, which as you may have guessed, is the science of how an embryo develops.