2018 Finalist: Outstanding Achievement in Technology sponsored by SAIT
Revolutionary bionic chip interfaces with the brain
Dr. Naweed Syed developed novel semi-conductor, neuron-chip technology that allows concurrent recordings of several hundred brain cells at a resolution never before achieved. The “lab on chip” technology provided the first direct evidence that brain cells can be interfaced with semi-conductor chips, which could lead to the future development of brain-controlled prosthetic devices.
What problem or opportunity did you see the need to address and how did you go about developing your solution?
The brain is very complex. There are tens of billions of brain cells controlling all functions, from simple reflexes to complex motor patterns, to learning and memory. If we are to understand how the brain functions, we must acquire the ability to record from large networks of neurons. That has never been achieved before.
The other aspect is if your brain is damaged either due to a stroke, trauma, injury, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s, the natural replacement of damaged brain tissue doesn’t occur. You have a big problem as to how you would regain lost brain function.
We came up with an idea to use semiconductor chips and computers to replace damaged tissue with an engineered device that will help us regain lost brain function and allow us to better record and understand how the brain functions.
This is fundamental. People thought we were crazy because the challenges were paramount. How can you design a computer chip or a semiconductor chip that is biocompatible, which can be integrated into the brain? When we saw cells growing on the chip, we were beaming with excitement because it provided the opportunity to make something that would be biocompatible.
We were the first team in the world to make a bionic hybrid where we grew brain cells on a semiconductor chip. They not only grew beautifully, but also made connections with each other. The unique part is that we recapitulated learning and memory on the chip whereby the brain cells were talking to the chip and the semiconductor chip was talking back to the brain cells. That really got the world excited.
What has been the impact?
We have had to hit several milestones to demonstrate that this is achievable, beyond the proof of principals.
We first grew brain cells on a semiconductor, but people said it is all artificial because how do you know that any two given brain cells connect in the brain the way they do in a culture dish? In the next stage, we took our proof of concept into the intact brain tissue; this is where we recorded spontaneously occurring seizures in an intact slice preparation. That’s never been done before.
The next iterative process was to implant a chip in a rat brain, which we have just completed. We are now negotiating with surgeons to implant these chips in children to detect epileptic seizures. With regulatory bodies and other challenges, this is a hill that not very many people are willing to climb. I think we now have a unique opportunity here in Alberta where we are now ready to implant these semiconductor chips into intact human brains.
Has being in Alberta helped you find success?
Alberta has served as a tremendous asset for us to develop this technology. We are very, very fortunate that in Alberta we have these wonderful opportunities. It makes us really proud that this is a made-in–Alberta technology. Government funding through the Alberta Heritage fund and Alberta Innovates has enabled us to attract the best and the brightest minds and allowed us access to equipment.
The Alberta advantage has allowed us to really take the lead. Our team is unique in the world for developing the technology of brain machine interfacing, which will allow for the future of brain controlled prosthetic devices.
What are the plans for the future?
Our immediate target is to focus on epilepsy. One day, in the very near future, we will be able to have an MRI of a child’s brain that has been implanted with these chips. As soon as the seizure occurs, the data will be integrated wirelessly into a 3-D model so the surgeons can determine where the seizures are coming from. This will allow them to pinpoint and remove only the tissue where the seizures are located.
Currently, when children (with epilepsy) come to the hospital, they have a 30-foot (monitoring) cable attached and they stay in the hospital for weeks to allow the surgeon to collect enough data about the location of the seizures.
With our technology, kids will go home and every time they seize the data will be transmitted to hospital. The accuracy that we have developed is superior to any other technology, not only to save time, but it makes the medicine more precise and the surgery more accurate with the least amount of side effects or collateral damage to the brain. This is our first platform and we’re very close to taking it into the market.
The long–term goal is to integrate these semi-conductor chips and implant them in the brain, subcortically and noninvasively. As soon as a person imagines moving their prosthetic limb, the chip will pick up this information and control the prosthetic limb as if it is part of our own body. This technology will hit many different sectors from artificial intelligence to machine learning, 3-D printing and robotics. This will really transform the way medicine is done in the world.
How does it feel to be an ASTech Finalist?
It’s a tremendous honour and privilege; it’s a very prestigious award. The process is quite rigorous. You must demonstrate unequivocally that you are worthy of this award and then your peers must vouch for you. Getting ranked on the list of some of the top finalists in our province is a moment of pride. It really bodes well for our technology because it brings in industry support.