Q&A with Dr. Paul Sajda, Co-chair, IEEE Brain

Q&A with Paul Sajda

Dr. Paul Sajda, a professor of biomedical engineering, electrical engineering and radiology at Columbia University and member of Columbia’s Data Science Institute, is a co-chair of IEEE Brain. He began as an IEEE student member, is an IEEE Fellow and has served as editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation.

How would you describe the unique role that the IEEE Brain Initiative is fulfilling in neuroscience?
Paul Sajda: The world’s existing large brain initiatives almost all are focused on some form of neurotechnology development. IEEE is unique within this context in that we are technologists; we’re fundamentally involved with building electronic systems that interface with other systems—to take this technology that’s developed and eventually use it for improving human health and well-being. In addition, in terms of global professional societies, we’re the ones who have particular, proven expertise in doing this kind of collaboration across multiple technology domains.

Why is now the right time for this kind of effort?
Paul Sajda: Now is the moment because, once the technology is too mature, or even already being used, it’s very hard to retroactively go backward and redirect technology development and translation in a way that benefits humanity. We are at a point where there’s enough momentum in this space—I mean, we’ve got funding agencies, professional societies, venture capitalists, big names starting companies, etc.—that now is the time to start the process of understanding brain-computer interface (BCI) translation and understanding the different implications of those efforts on humanity. There’s a long process there to understand and, where we can, standardize.

How will you know this is working?
Paul Sajda: There are two ways to look at it. One is inwardly focused within IEEE, and the other is outwardly focused.

The inward focus is a very important piece. IEEE is big and has all these societies and councils, and there’s activity that’s kind of dispersed across these organizational units that, if we could just sew them together, there’s a much stronger and richer set of intellectual property and technology that could potentially be utilized in these BCI translational efforts. So we’re using this initiative as an opportunity to create this connectivity within IEEE and foster further collaboration among people who might not even be in IEEE Brain but who are doing work that is closely related and that is clearly important—from the nano side, the power side, etc.—and could have revolutionary impact.

Outward-facing, one of the challenges facing us is, how can we really make an impact on standards? If we start seeing global standards that are used in BCI—and, in fact, not only used, but the commercial sector is demanding these standards—then that will be a key sign that IEEE Brain is being successful in its outward focus.
Another thing that will show success is if we can, in addition to advocating for our constituents that are already in neurotech, we also bring new IEEE members into this work. If IEEE Brain connects with diverse professionals who typically would not apply for grants in this space, for example, then that would be a major success, I think.

One of the great things about IEEE is the fact that it has, in any given society, a diverse set of individuals. I’ll give you an example. I was just at an event at the NIH BRAIN (National Institutes of Health Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, and I gave a talk. Somebody came up to me who worked in ultrasound—ultrasonics is a very big area now in brain initiatives—and he said, “Oh, you know, I never heard of IEEE Brain before. I go to the IEEE Ultrasonics meeting all the time, and I’ve never heard of it.” So I think that one of the things we want to do is to help enable a much larger fraction of the engineers to be involved and to even know that there are opportunities for them in brain. I think what we need to do is make sure we have ambassadors in all of these different societies, who can communicate, “Hey, you know, IEEE Brain is here, and we can help you in terms of your research.”

Finally, one of the things that we really want to deliver as part of the initiative are roadmaps—strategic guidelines on how we think certain technologies should be developed. And we want to see those roadmaps adopted both by the funding agencies and the commercial entities.

How is the work of IEEE Brain being organized?
Paul Sajda: When we started IEEE Brain, we were strategic in trying to not bite off something too big … to ask, All right, what are we looking at that’s specifically a good fit for IEEE, given that we also know the activities in the different societies? That led to our focus on brain/machine interfaces. If you look across the IEEE societies in IEEE Brain, there’s lots of activity in that area. In fact, if you look at what a brain/machine interface is, its elements almost fit right into an IEEE standard—all the way from sensing to signal processing to power delivery to communication and so forth.

But we’re not going to stop there. As we’ve matured, we’re looking to add to our portfolio of these brain topics that we think IEEE can be particularly important and productive in. So the other one that I think we’re going to start ramping up over the next year or so is bioelectronic medicine, also termed “electroceuticals.” The idea there is that it’s kind of a new type of way to think about interfacing with the peripheral nervous system and essentially using electrical stimulation to supplant pharmaceuticals. The idea is that there’s lots of evidence that delivery of electrical stimulation to peripheral nerves that control the organs can be important from the therapeutic standpoint for different diseases. And, in fact, there are some big drug companies that have started to realize that this might be a wave of the future in terms of medicine. You can take a pill, and you get the systemic effect across the whole body. But if you implant a little microelectrode in the right nerve, you’re only hitting the organ you want to hit. So I think that that’s another area that we’ll go into.

As the initiative evolves, it hopefully gets bigger, and we will be kind of the conduit in which we think about how the technology within IEEE influences how we interact, measure and interface with the brain. This is the idea behind our giving the initiative such a purposefully broad name: “IEEE Brain.”