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The Royal Academy of Engineering funds global research visionaries to advance emerging technologies

The Royal Academy of Engineering has today announced long-term support to ten engineering global-visionaries to develop areas of emerging technology. One of the ten Chairs is Professor Tim Denison, who will take up the post of Professor of Neurotechnology at the University of Oxford in August 2018.

The Royal Academy of Engineering Chairs in Emerging Technologies will focus on developing technologies that have the potential to bring significant economic and societal benefits to the UK, ensuring that the UK is a driving force for global technological innovation.

Professor Tim Denison will take up the post of Professor of Neurotechnology at the University of Oxford from 1st August 2018, based in the Department of Engineering Science and the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, and will lead the effort in developing novel, closed-loop, minimally invasive brain therapies. Professor Denison’s Emerging Technologies project is entitled ‘Brain engineering: towards closed-loop, non-invasive bioelectronic therapies for neurological disorders'.

Supported by the UK government’s National Productivity Investment Fund, the Academy is committing £1.3 million to each of the ten-year programmes. The support provided to the Chairs in Emerging Technologies will enable these engineers to focus on advancing the novel technologies from basic research through to real deployment and commercialisation.

The ten Chairs were selected by a panel of Fellows of the Academy, led by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and open data pioneer, Sir Nigel Shadbolt FREng FRS. As part of their appointment, the Chairs will develop Centres of Excellence in their areas of emerging technology, building and maintaining contacts with industry and other partners to accelerate commercialisation.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “Emerging technologies offer enormous opportunities for the UK, both economically and socially, but often their potential is not widely recognised until it is championed by a visionary individual. The ten researchers who have been appointed as Chairs in Emerging Technologies are global leaders in their fields, seeking to transform their pioneering ideas into fully commercialised technologies with important and widespread applications".

Brain engineering

Phase-specific stimulation. The neurostimulator is controlled by patient’s tremor, sensed using the accelerometer attached to the tremulous hand. The green segments indicate when a burst of stimulation is applied to patient’s ventrolateral thalamus. The exact timing of stimulation onset is locked to a particular tremor phase, and the interburst frequency is equivalent to the patient’s tremor frequency.

When treating neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, doctors have generally relied on drug discoveries, but this is often a costly and lengthy process. With the significant personal and societal costs incurred by such disorders there’s an imperative to invest in alternative approaches to treatment.

Bioelectronics work directly with the body’s own nervous system to monitor physiological signals and, as needed, tweak the electrical activity within nerves to alleviate symptoms of diseases. Existing bioelectronic systems have several drawbacks, and despite clinical success in treating symptoms of diseases like Parkinson’s, are only used in a minority of cases. Currently a skilled surgeon is required to implant the system in a patient, and the system’s programming is inflexible compared to the rich dynamics of the nervous system.

The microelectronic basis and digital programmability of bioelectronic systems means that there is huge potential for flexibility in both research and future medical device design. Emerging technology offers the possibility of building restorative neural systems which are adaptable and programmable for various diseases, as well as specifically for individuals. The algorithms used to programme the systems can be modified as scientific understanding of the brain evolves, and also be used to rapidly respond to physiological fluctuations within the body. But to realize this potential, we first need a better understanding of how the brain functions and responds to bioelectronic interventions.

Professor Denison’s programme will explore the future of adaptive, minimally-invasive bioelectronics by, firstly, developing the key scientific instrumentation required to better understand how the brain functions and adapts to a range of perturbations including ultrasound and transcranial electro-magnetic stimulation, and then in collaboration with clinician-partners, applying these tools and know-how to prototype concepts for future disease treatments, all with a goal of ultimate clinical translation.

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