In celebration of Brain Awareness Week, we will give you a sneak peek into the lives of the some of the Wyss Center team. Find out how they came to work in neurotech and where they think we’ll see the greatest advances in the coming years. Check back regularly!
From restoring movement in paralyzed limbs to reducing tinnitus through thought, this series of interviews with the Wyss Center leadership, neuroscientists and robotics experts will put cutting edge neurotechnology in the spotlight. Discover how this emerging field can help people with nervous system disorders and discover the big challenges to be overcome before new concepts can be made available for everyone.
First up is…
Dr. Tracy Laabs, Deputy Director of the Wyss Center
Could you briefly describe your role at the Wyss Center?
I am the Deputy Director of the Wyss Center so, as part of the leadership team, I help the Director develop and implement policies and strategies that enable us to fulfil our mission of accelerating development of neurotechnology for human benefit.
We have five major programs and around 20 projects that fit within these program areas.
One of our major programs, which includes around six projects, is the movement restoration program. The projects in this program are all focussed on the goal of restoring movement and communication in people with paralysis, these could be people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or brainstem stroke, or other disorders. The program has multiple facets. It has neuroscience components to understand how the brain encodes movement and how we can harness its innate plasticity and engineering components to develop technology to read signals from the brain, decode those signals more seamlessly and in real-time and control algorithms to enable a person to, for example, move a cursor or a robot arm just by thinking about it. Ultimately, we’d like to actually connect the intent to move to technology in a person’s own arm and restore movement.
As part of this program we have also established a number of clinical projects to build the knowledge and team to be able to support patients who are paralyzed to become more independent. Working with clinicians early in technology development projects is imperative to optimize design and understand the clinical limitations and implications of our technology.
These are big ambitious, exciting projects - how did you get involved in this area?
Well, I have been interested in neuroprosthetics since my PhD when I studied spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury - more from the molecular standpoint – but I was also interested in different strategies to help people with nervous system injuries.
So you have a neuro-related PhD. Can you talk about your work prior to the Wyss Center?
After my PhD, I moved to the funding side of high risk science and technology projects, working for the US government as a contractor. There I was fortunate to work with many academic, government and industrial labs to drive innovation in neuroscience and neurotechnology.
Can you talk about any of the projects that you worked on while you were there?
Sure, some of the projects I was working on there, aimed to develop a better understanding of how the brain and physiological systems react to stress and high demand training to enable better strategies and technologies for combatting and preventing stress related conditions. Working at the intersection of neuroscience and human performance was a lot of fun and helping people understand how to use neuroscientific strategies to cope with a range of situations was very rewarding. Another project I worked on aimed to develop neural interface systems to read from multiple subnetworks of the brain and then use this information to modulate the brain in a very sophisticated way to treat psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety.
Do you know what the outcomes of those projects are? Did they result in any technology becoming broadly available?
Not broadly available yet – these projects are still ongoing. The types of technology that they work on there - and that we work on here - are extremely ambitious and take a great deal of time and resources, both financial and intellectual, to develop.
Looking at the disorders you have mentioned: depression, anxiety, paralysis and the inability to communicate, is there a particular group of people that you think would benefit most from advances in neurotechnology in the next ten years?
I think that if you could find a technology that would work for a disorder as complex as depression, that could lead to enormous benefits. I think that neuropsychiatric illness is probably the next frontier and neurophsyicatric patients could be the group that would benefit most from advances in neurotechnology.
Are you saying that because it is a large patient population and so many people could benefit or because, if there was a solution, these people would experience the greatest boost in quality of life?
That’s a difficult question but I think that people who suffer from disorders like intractable depression for example, also suffer from many secondary effects on their physical health in addition to their illness. The first line of defence for depression is still with pharmaceuticals, many of which have terrible side effects impacting daily life to the point where some patients would rather face the depression. The promise of neurotechnology is the ability to treat these disorders in a much more precise and targeted way.
So are you saying that by fixing depression you could potentially also fix secondary disorders?
It remains to be seen, but yes, I believe so.
So if this could have such a big impact, what are the limitations to creating a device for depression?
Well it’s an extremely complex disease and difficult to study with implantable neurotechnology. For implantable technologies for epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, for example, the patients needed to test the new device are often already candidates for brain surgery. Ethically it is more difficult to recommend a procedure like brain surgery for someone with depression who would not otherwise require surgery. This makes developing implantable devices for depression more challenging, but not impossible. In fact, there have been some studies to use deep brain stimulation for depression. The results are promising for a subset of people, and there is hope for the future of this technology in depression. I believe once we understand more about individual differences in depression through an understanding of the brain circuits involved and how they change over time, we miniaturize the technology, and we understand more about the long-term effects of implantable technology, developing such a device should become easier.
Do you have a feeling of where we are likely to see the biggest advances in the types of neurotechnologies you work on in the next ten years?
I think the biggest advances will be when the technology is at a state where it is safe and user friendly enough to be available for use in the home. This would require a fully implantable brain sensing hardware with a wireless connection to an external unit. I believe this is achievable in the next ten years.
I also think that in the next ten years we’ll see advances in computing technology, decoding algorithms and low power electronics which will really have a huge part to play in the development of technologies that will be able to work 24/7.
What do you enjoy most about working in an organisation at the frontiers of a field like neurotechnology?
That’s a good question! I think I like most the perpetual learning. Although I am a neuroscientist by training, I have learned over the past ten years, that there’s an enormous amount of information that can be transferred between disciplines. Putting physicists or electrical engineers together with biologists and clinicians is extremely exciting to me. I love when people teach each other things for the benefit of a technology. There’s so much hope in developing these types of technologies and interacting with patients who are eager to benefit is also very rewarding. I also enjoy communicating what we do to the public. I like explaining what is the state-of-the-art and what we are optimistic about for the future.