UW News

September 4, 2018

UW-based center updates name to highlight role of ‘neurotechnologies’ in healing the brain and spinal cord

UW News

Building on seven years of research that helps patients with sensory and motor neurological disorders, the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering is updating its name to the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT). The CNT, which is based at the University of Washington but includes researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, San Diego State University, Caltech and other partners, changed its name to highlight the key role that neurotechnologies play in its mission. New CNT logo

“In the beginning, our mission was quite broad, ranging from developing virtual reality therapies for rehabilitation to creating anthropomorphic robotic hands for amputees,” said Rajesh Rao, co-director of the CNT and a professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “Over the years, we have narrowed our focus to maximize our impact in an area in which we are acknowledged as leaders in the field: developing neurotechnologies that can electrically record and stimulate the brain and spinal cord to repair damaged neural circuits.”

Rao and co-director Chet Moritz wanted the center’s name to reflect this shift.

“Our team has pioneered the concept of engineered neuroplasticity, the idea that we can use electronic devices to guide the nervous system to rewire and heal after injury,” said Moritz, who is an associate professor with joint appointments in UW’s electrical engineering department and UW Medicine’s rehabilitation medicine and physiology & biophysics departments.

The name change comes as the National Science Foundation announced Aug. 31 that it will renew the center’s funding, promising up to $8.4 million over the next three years.

Since 2011, the CNT has received $27 million from the NSF and has made significant research advances in the field of engineering neuroplasticity, developed educational tools about neurotechnology and brain-computer interfaces, and become a leader in the field of neuroethics.

“As we build devices that directly interact with the brain, and even change the wiring of the nervous system, it is critical that we address the ethical implications of our work at the earliest stages of design and implementation,” Moritz said.

Looking to the future, both co-directors are excited to see how the neurotechnologies the CNT develops will help patients with a variety of neurological conditions regain lost functions.

“We are proud of the vibrant multidisciplinary community of collaborating students and researchers that the center has created over the past seven years,” said Rao, who is the Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professor of computer science & engineering and electrical engineering. “I doubt if there is any other center in the world where you will find philosophy students embedded in engineering labs asking important neuroethics questions on a project that also involves neurosurgeons and industry partners.”

Scroll down to see more of the CNT’s accomplishments:

a brain-computer interface based on an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap

CNT researchers use brain-computer interfaces, such as the one shown above, to record and interpret brain signals and develop new computational theories to understand how neural circuits rewire to promote healing after injuries. Here, Julia Lieberman, a high school student in the Young Scholars Program, is wearing a brain-computer interface based on an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap, which is used to read brain signals from the surface of the scalp.Mark Stone/University of Washington


UW researchers explore ethical issues arising from emerging neural engineering technologies

The CNT has become a leader in the field of neuroethics related to devices that interface with the brain and spinal cord. Here, UW researchers Tim Brown (left) and Sara Goering explore ethical issues arising from emerging neural engineering technologies. They then will use this experience to help develop the center’s engineering design and development processes.Mark Stone/University of Washington


a student participating in the Hackathon wears a device controlled by muscle activity

The CNT initiates, supports and runs many educational programs, including the CNT Hackathon. This program brings undergraduate students from across the country together to invent neural engineering solutions that address real-world issues, such as spinal cord injury and stroke, in a fast-paced, 36-hour time period. Here, a student participating in the Hackathon wears a device controlled by muscle activity (a procedure called electromyography).Mark Stone/University of Washington


students from the UW's DO-IT Scholars Program visit the CNT to learn about neural engineering

The center promotes the engagement of people with disabilities in NSF-funded engineering research centers throughout the nation via its AccessERC initiative. Here, students from the UW’s DO-IT Scholars Program visit the CNT to learn about neural engineering.Marcus Donner


demonstrating a robotic, biomimetic hand to a center visitor

The center is dedicated to moving research discoveries out of the lab to patients who will benefit from them. So far, the center has launched four startup companies and established relationships with 36 industry members and 12 innovation partners. Here, Zhe (Joseph) Xu, co-founder and chief scientist of Embotic Technology (one of the CNT’s startups), demonstrates a robotic, biomimetic hand to a center visitor. The hand is made up of 3D-printed parts and is capable of smooth, natural motion.Mark Stone/University of Washington


testing the hardware used for stimulating and recording a patient’s brain surface, including a "cyber glove"

In 2016, the CNT demonstrated for the first time that electrical brain surface stimulation can be used to provide ‘touch’ feedback to help direct movement, a result with implications for next-generation prosthetics for amputees and paralyzed patients. Here, UW medical/doctoral student and GRIDLab member David Caldwell tests the hardware used for stimulating and recording a patient’s brain surface, along with a “cyber glove,” which tracks hand-joint angles and finger motions.Mark Stone/University of Washington


a rubber-like fiber that can flex and stretch

CNT researchers have developed innovative neurotechnologies to advance neuroscience and neural engineering research. Shown here is a rubber-like fiber that can flex and stretch while simultaneously delivering both optical impulses — for using light to stimulate neurons in the spinal cord — and electrical impulses for neural stimulation and monitoring.Chi (Alice) Lu and Seongjun Park/MIT


A new probe that provides a robust platform to help us understand how the brain works

Another technology that CNT researchers have developed to advance neuroscience and neural engineering research: A new probe that provides a robust platform to help us understand how the brain works. It comes in two forms for monitoring different brain areas. First, electrodes are embedded in a flat, flexible surface (left, magnified in the upper left) to monitor electrical activity from the surface of the brain (a process called electrocorticography or ECoG). Then, for readings deeper in the brain, the electrodes are connected to a thin needle (right, magnified in the lower right).Kassegne Lab/San Diego State University


testing a deep-brain stimulator

The center has developed neurotechnology for a more effective treatment for essential tremor, an involuntary, rhythmic shaking during intentional movement. This neurological disorder affects 7 million people in the U.S. Here, CNT researcher Margaret Thompson, who recently received an electrical engineering doctoral degree from the UW, tests a deep-brain stimulator to make sure the new system to treat essential tremor works correctly.Mark Stone/University of Washington


testing a study participant's motor skills

The center tested a noninvasive stimulation method that improves hand and arm function in people with spinal cord injury. When stimulation was coupled with physical therapy, the participant in the study regained muscle strength and control that lasted three months after the treatment had ended. Here, co-director Chet Moritz (left) and CNT graduate students Fatma Inanici and Soshi Samejima (right) test the motor skills of study participant Joe Beatty (center) during spinal stimulation.Matt Hagen


For more information, contact Moritz at ctmoritz@uw.edu and Rao at rpnr@uw.edu.