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TEDxLakeComo -- Sivia Bossi - Neural interfaces for electronic devices

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(Applause) The context in which I am conducting my research work is Biorobotics. Biorobotics studies the inner workings of the biological systems from an engineering perspective, in order to develop new bio-inspired robots, that is, inspired by preexisting biological systems, as well as to develop new biomedical devices, and indeed neural interfaces belong to this field of investigation. Neural interfaces are nothing but electrodes, more specificially they are invasive neural interfaces, as they are inserted into our nervous system in order to enable our nervous system, at either a local or peripheral level, to communicate with an artificial device. In order to better understand in which area they are inserted, it is best to briefly recall that our nervous system is an essential element of anything related to our sensations or to our movements, both the volountary and the involountary ones, and that the nervous system, basically, can be divided in two parts: the central nervous system, consisting of the cortex and of the spinal marrow, and the peripheral nervous system, consisting of the peripheral and cranial nerves. The neural cell is the basic element of the nervous system and is, therefore, the essential element in the transmission of neural impulses. What actually happens when a neural impulse is propagated is that a variation of the potential difference between the surface and the inside of that kind of "sausage" you see there is propagated, and that sausage-like thing is called an axon. Therefore, by positioning our neural interface close to this axon we become able to detect the neural impulse. I have selected two leading applications for neural interfaces. They still are at the research stage of their development. Among the selected ones is an application at the central nervous system level more specifically of the visual cortex of a patient who volounteered to have this experimental visual neuroprothesis implanted. Video: The power of human sight comes from millions of years of evolution. We can’t even understand that and technology today can begin to match the sophistication of our incredible eyes. Cheryl Robinson, from Missouri, is about to step into this virtual world. Hoping to regain her sight, Cheryl volunteers for a pioneering procedure. Doctors drill through both side of her skull, exposing her brain. Then they implant two triangular plates, each holding two hundred tiny electrodes directly onto Cheryl’s visual cortex. Finally the surgeons string cables from the plates to terminals sticking out of her skull. Next the electrodes run through a computer to a camera on Cheryl’s eyeglasses. But before she can see what the camera sees, many things have to happen. Each electrode touches a different part of Cheryl’s brain. When the system triggers an electrode she sees a flash somewhere in her visual field. Where? The doctors don’t know. Now? So, they trigger each electrode one by one to learn where, in her visual field, Cheryl sees flashes. Now? Oh, wow! Up right, there Ok. When she sees a flash, Cheryl points to top, bottom, left or right. With every electrode mat the doctors connect the camera making certain what it’s seen matches the flashes in Cheryl’s brain. Finally, with the camera mounted, Cheryl’s mother helps connect the gear to try the new settings. Are you ready? Has technology helped bring Cheryl’s sight back? Oh, wow! Wow, I saw big flasehs right there! I know that there’s an object there. I’m not sure of what it is. Is it a sailboat? Is that a sailor? Silvia Bossi: What happened is that she has experienced some visual sensations. Surely, that's quite different from asserting she has recovered her lost sight, but that also means research is making some progress. The other application concerns the peripheral nervous system. The Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna University has worked on an experiment -- specifically, the Neural Interfaces Group of the Sant'Anna Institute, to which I belong -- that involves a neuroprothesis for a boy who lost one of his arms. Pierpaolo, a young Italo-Brasilian, agrees to become a test subject in the name of progress. The hope is that the electrodes inserted into the severed nerves of the arm will enable to record impulses from the brain, which are needed to operate the prothesis. The operation consist in inserting two electrodes in the median nerve and two in the ulnar one. Each electrode inserted is thinner than a hair. They were developed to stick to the nerve, so as to collect the impulses from the brain and to act as a bridge between Pierpaolo's brain activity and the artificial world of computers which will decode the impulses and turn them into instructions. It's an experimental technique developed to obtain reliable contact points for the six weeks duration of the experiment. They are to be removed at the end of the experiment waiting for bioengineers to develop a new generation of electrodes for permanent implants. A computer analyzes the chaotic flow of electrical activity coming from the brain. Some programs isolate the significant signals and little by little, the patient learns how to operate the mechanical interface. Dutiful, the hand enacts Pierpaolo's desires by executing the desired movements. The applications I have shown you are, indeed, still at a research stage for there still are many limits for the permanent application of these interfaces. So our research activity mine and that of the Scuola Sant'Anna University neural interfaces group aims at overcoming these limits. One possible approach consists in creating an "intelligent" interface that would be able to change the position of the electrode inside the tissue after its implantation. This approach could ensure a longer lifespan and an improved signal quality after the implantation. We are also studying two additional aspects, the reduction of invasiveness, and therefore of the damage caused to the nerve by the insertion of the interface, and the possibility of covering the surface of the electrode with a biactive coding, in order to reduce the fibrotic reaction of the tissue surrounding the electrode. These studies have also revealed that there exist a possibility to move on from a research project to a business project. Yet when I happened to face this kind of transition I found that I was in the same situation experienced by many italian researchers. They face a wall, the wall of not knowing how to deal with the dynamics of a new business, of a new enterprise. I accidentally got involved in the Fulbright Best program, a cultural exchange program promoted both by the United States and by Italy whose objective is promoting Italian enterpreneurship by physically sending high-tech researchers such as me, obviously the ones that have got some enterpreneurial idea, to Silicon Valley for a training period. Why Silicon Valley? For Silicon Valley, that lies to the south of San Francisco, contains a number of distinguishing elements. First of all, the headquarters of many important companies are there. I am reffering to companies such as Google, Apple, Yahoo, E-Bay. They all are within a radius of few kilometers. Furthermore, there are many prestigeous universities such as Stanford, Berkeley, or the Nasa Research Park, and to round out the pictures, and there also is a large group of investors. Investors that elect to invest their money in new enterpreneurial ideas, as opposed to investing in stocks. In order to learn how to start up a new company in Silicon Valley it is necessary -- consider that if Silicon Valley was once famous for the gold rush now it's famous for the rush to enterpreneurs -- to persuade them, by creating a convincing business plan and, above all, it's necessary to learn how to communicate it to the potential investors. And to communicate it through something known nowadays as the "Elevator Pitch", that is the chance of convincing an enterpreneur in the amount of time that an elevator needs to go from the bottom to the top floor of a skyscraper. So part of my trainining in Silicon Valley consisted in attending some university courses at the Santa Clara University specifically in its business school, and in experiecing directly, during a three months stage in a local company, how the principles I was taught are applied to a local start up. Obviously all these experiences are put togheter and combined by an important business networking action that one needs to engage in while being there, in order to find personalities that have a business experience and that might give you important and useful suggestions on how to realize your idea. Moreover, when one lives in this kind of world, the Business Plan Competition is one of the events to attend. During this event aspiring enterpreneurs challenge each other by comparing their business plans. I collected all these elements into my enterpreneurial project thus creating the project I called "Smania" where "Smania" stands for Smart Neural Interfaces and Advanced Modeling. An important help was given by some personalities I met who are entirely different from the ones we meet here in Italy. Take, for instance, Josh McCouer, a serial enterpreneur who's also a typical Silicon Valley enterpreneur. Josh McCour has received a very high level formation an Mba at the Columbia University, he also studied at the MIT, then at the New York University and so on. He has founded some 7 or 8 biomedic enterprises. I think he is a model Silicon Valley enterpreneur because he hasn't only founded them, but he also managed to achieve a succesful "Exit Strategy". That is, he succedded into selling many of companies he founded in few years for hundreds of millions of dollars. It is also very important to get to know other young enterpreneurs that are in your same boat, as, for instance, Elisabetta Bianchini, with who I have started a new project specifically for the purpose of understanding and developing our business idea. So, obviously I expect to put all I have learned during my years of research work and during my training years in Silcon Valley in pratice, in order to initiate this project and to turn it into something real. Obviously without forgetting the important lessons I have learned while there. Among these the one that has struck me the most is that when we really want to create something important, something big, it's important to select and surround ourselves with skilled people, really skilled people, even when they are better then us. So one should not be afraid of talent (applause) and should avoid surrounding oneself with less skilled people. So it's better to remember that "A" people ought to get other "A" as collaborators, that is people belonging to the same talent classes, while "B" people get "C" people and so on. So thank you for your attention and thanks to all the people of the Neural Interfaces Group at Sant'Anna. (Applause) Translation: [email protected] Creative Commons Licence BY-NC-ND 2012

Video Details

Duration: 15 minutes and 13 seconds
Country: Italy
Language: Italian
Genre: None
Producer: TEDxLakeComo
Views: 141
Posted by: gifino on Feb 16, 2012

Mechanical engineer and a PhD in Science and Engineering Biorobotics, has carried out research on neuroprosthesis at the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa (www.sssup.it) where she worked to develop prototypes of new invasive neural interfaces. Winner of the Best 2011 Fulbright Scholarship, she attended from January to June 2011 to an entrepreneurial training program at Santa Clara University in the heart of Silicon Valley in California working on her business plan SMANIA.

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