Neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis is scheduled to visit Concordia College April 24, through the second annual Nornes Student Lecture. Dr. Nicolelis is a prominent figure within the neuroscience world; his groundbreaking work and research with neuroprosthetics, along with his pioneering the construction of exoskeletons connected to the subject’s brain, make him an exciting speaker for Concordia to host. Nicolelis also works with technology designed to help those with paralysis move robotics limbs using their minds, as well as spearheading research behind the possibility that said paralyzed subject could “feel” the object the robotic arm is in contact with.
Nicolelis is a neuroscience professor at the Duke University School of Medicine; a professor of neurobiology, biomedical engineering, psychology, and neuroscience at Duke University; and the founder of Duke’s Center for Neuroengineering.
Dr. Darin Ulness, chemistry and neuroscience professor at Concordia, said that the department tries to bring in influential individuals to help the students expand upon their studies.
“What we try to do is get an eminent scientist to come and talk about a topic at the forefront of science, in a way that is engaging for the public,” Ulness said.
“[Nicolelis] specializes in neuroprosthetics,” said senior Carl Minnerath. “He interprets signals, or brain-machine interfaces, especially for paralyzed patients. He specializes in prosthetics to help people walk.”
Minnerath said that Nicolelis’ work is prevalent within the neuroscience community, because he is a pioneer within the field. In fact, most documents that have to do with neuroprosthetics will have at least a piece of Dr. Nicolelis’ work within them.
One of the more public and ceremonious moments Nicolelis played an integral role in was the 2014 World Cup kickoff in São Paulo, Brazil.
“[Nicolelis is] from Brazil, so he sponsors a lot of things for a lot of social good there. He’s a big soccer fan,” Minnerath said. “So for the first kickoff of the World Cup in São Paulo, he designed an exoskeleton for a paralyzed patient, who kicked the soccer ball using a robot connected to his motor cortex. That’s a very cool thing! He is pioneering the engineering the construction of these exoskeletons — specifically, interpreting motor cortex signals from the brain.”
According to Ulness, two projects that are close to Nicolelis’ heart are the Walk Again Project, an international nonprofit and collective dedicated to helping those suffering from paralysis, which he founded, and the general field brain-machine interfacing.
“He’s worked a lot with primates,” Ulness said. “[He’s working towards] trying to understand the process: starting from the initiation of a thought to perform a movement, to how that gets encoded in the brain, translated into the muscles, and so on.”
The Neuroscience Senior Seminar this semester has been focusing on Nicolelis’ work in order to prepare for his arrival in late April. “I changed the course a bit to focus on the area that Professor Nicolelis works in, which is brain-machine interfacing,” Ulness said, who teaches the class. He decided to focus the class on the connections between neurobiology, technology, and the rest of the world. He and his students have been asking themselves, “How can they use this technology to help people with disabilities, as well as how can we enhance our own abilities with this new potential technology?”
“It’s an incredibly exciting frontier of science,” Ulness said.
“We’ve really analyzed his work from an interdisciplinary approach,” Minnerath agreed.
The class has recently been focusing on the multidisciplinary nature of Nicolelis’ work, disciplines and concepts “such as ethics, military, economics, integration into modern health, or religion,” Minnerath explained. Ulness also said that within the class, they’re not just focusing on the real and multidisciplinary impact that this neuroscience can have, but that they are “doing it in a way, not to learn so much the detailed science, as much as to ask, ‘What can we do in this class to make the maximum impact of Nicolelis’ visit for the whole college community?’”
The best way to share this information, they decided, was to create a web page centering around Nicolelis’ work, and brain-machine interfacing.
“We have brainstormed on a lot of areas, and have found clear, concise resources in video or written form, and then we are constructing a web page that will be specific to this visit, that will be laid out in such a way so a student can choose what they are most interested in, in order to learn more about it,” Ulness said.
“We wanted this to get out to the whole Concordia community and beyond, to get people interested in it, and to get them engaged,” Minnerath said. “Not just from a neuroscience perspective, but also from their own perspective. I think it reaches a lot of different majors and departments within Concordia.”
As for what the Concordia community can expect from the Nornes Lecture itself, Nicolelis wrote in his abstract for his speech that he plans to “describe how state-of-the-art research on brain-machine interfaces makes it possible for the brains of primates to interact directly,” using both mechanical, and virtual devices without any interference from the subject’s muscles. He will also revisit recent experiments he has conducted, as well as sharing his hypothesis that a robot arm can be assimilated by the brain in such a way that it can be an extension of the subject’s body.
According to Ulness, Nicolelis will give his talk at the second Nornes Lecture April 24, at 7 p.m., in the Centrum.
“We’re hoping to, as the students in the Senior Seminar, lead the discussion post-Nornes Lecture,” Ulness said.
He, and the rest of the Neuroscience discipline, hope that this year’s Nornes Lectures expose many students to just how applicable the sciences truly are.