Q&A with Dr. Jose Carmena, Co-chair, IEEE Brain

Dr. Jose Carmena, Co-chair, IEEE Brain

Dr. Jose Carmena is a co-chair of IEEE Brain, which facilitates cross-disciplinary collaboration and coordination to advance research, standardization and development of technologies in neuroscience to help improve the human condition. He is Chancellor’s Professor of Electrical Engineering and Neuroscience and Co-Director of the Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses (CNEP) in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

IEEE Brain is working to foster interaction across diverse expertise across and even beyond IEEE and invite new contributors to neuroscience. Have you had any eye-opening moments thus far where maybe someone who came to the conversation from a different background looked at neuroscience in a different way?

Jose Carmena: In the realm of neurotechnologies yes, there have been some of those moments where you see a poster or attend a talk by a colleague, for example, at the main workshop of the IEEE Brain, Advanced NeuroTechnologies for Brain Initiatives (ANTBI), and you go, “Oh, wow.” People coming from applied physics and related fields such as optics are certainly pushing the envelope, devising new ways to read-out and write-in information from/to the brain with unprecedented spatio-temporal resolution.

One thing to bear in mind is that historically—except for Bell Labs, which had, at a given time, some of the best minds in systems neuroscience—the field of neuroscience was dominated by psychologists, biologists and MDs, and the available technologies were devised by them, which is pretty impressive. Neurophysiologists used to build their own amplifiers and electrophysiology equipment. The important point here is that the technology was developed for the needs of the experiment that was being performed, almost entirely in animal models. Brain-machine interfaces and neural prosthetics sound like a very engineering-oriented, clinically targeted type of work. Yet the pioneers of this area were neurobiologists. They were not engineers. They were neuroscientists that had the insight to apply the same technology and methods that they were using in their labs into a different application. These technologies were not initiated by engineers thinking, “We should go and build neuroprosthetics. We have the tools.”

As a result, the tools we have used for the first years in the neural engineering/neuroprosthetics field are limited and, in most cases, not scalable. They are not designed to be safe and robust and last in the human brain for decades—as in the case of a clinical use of the technology—or to scale up to millions of recording channels—as in the case of brain-mapping applications). There is so much white space and room available for breakthroughs and advancement of these technologies.

What is promising about IEEE Brain is that it is basically bringing the engineer into the picture, and that’s a new perspective for neuroscience.

Could you please talk a little more about that unique role that you see IEEE Brain playing?

Jose Carmena: I think IEEE Brain is poised to play two main roles.

IEEE Brain can integrate multiple IEEE societies and councils, serving as sort of an umbrella program across the whole IEEE to coordinate and integrate efforts in all the subfields relevant to Brain. Some are already established in this field such as the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) while others are realizing their technology domains can make an impact to neuroscience.  Across the IEEE, you can find expertise in all the domains of physics and electronics, the hard sciences. Many of these societies have core expertise in well-defined areas, e.g., sensors, circuits, algorithms, controls, etc. IEEE Brain can leverage all this expertise that otherwise may get lost. That is valuable.

The other important role is with respect to the other Brain initiatives worldwide that are not related to IEEE. There are large efforts going on in the United States, Europe, Japan, China, Australia; these initiatives have a higher concentration of neuroscientists and clinicians that typically have a systems and/or computational neuroscience approach to the problem. Of course, there are also contributions from other domains such as physics and mathematics. But with IEEE being the largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for humanity, with expertise in all of the domains of engineering, there should be tremendous value there to leverage for the development of disruptive neurotechnologies—to add to what I would say is already a pretty complete ecosystem of brain initiatives around the world.

What are the tangible outputs that IEEE Brain can help bring about, and how do you see them helping advance the field?

Jose Carmena: Part of what IEEE is good at is standards. Eventually, as brain interfaces increase in bandwidth and adoption, you could see the need of having standards to deal with all of these volumes of data and the knowledge facilitated by the technology. This is something that IEEE has a lot of experience in and can be very useful for IEEE Brain.

In addition to sponsoring and organizing diverse conferences and workshops throughout the year, one of the new things that we are launching this year in IEEE Brain is the organization of Think Tanks. These are by-invitation-only workshops where a selected group of experts from different domains—some of which are outside the traditional domain of IEEE—get together for two to three days and work on a specific topic relevant to IEEE Brain. The format is different than traditional workshops in the sense that there are no talks, no formal presentations. Instead, participants will work in different breakout groups focused on solving a given problem, or coming out with a roadmap for a given area, e.g. recommendations on what should the community focus on for the next decade while working on X. This roadmap should not only be informative for the community at large but also could steer and influence federal funding, in terms of what type of work or approaches should be prioritized, etc. IEEE Brain is coordinating and organizing these Think Tanks, and we plan to have the first one this fall as a pilot. The topic will be on the closed-loop control of neural activity, and it will take place in New York City in September, with a group of ~35 participants. Also, the Kavli Foundation is co-sponsoring the event with IEEE Brain.

Another resource from IEEE Brain is the web portal with highlights of the latest advances in the field, as well as a newsletter that contains invited articles summarizing recent scientific and engineering advances that are relevant to IEEE Brain. In addition to being a valuable tool for the IEEE Brain community at large, the portal is a useful resource for newcomers to neural engineering, such as students, professionals from other disciplines, etc., as it integrates and distills a big body of knowledge and areas.