Where neuroscience and nanotechnology meet. An interview with Giulio Nicolò Meldolesi

Neurotechnologies are emerging as one of the areas of greatest scientific interest of the XXI century. They integrate advanced methods of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science with the current knowledge in Neuroscience and Neurophysiology in order to produce new devices for the diagnosis, care and treatment of disorders of the nervous system.

Great progress has already been made in the design and implementation of a new generation of devices that restore or improve the sensory and motor functions, such as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for people with severe paralysis or for the neurorehabilitation of stroke patients, but they can also cure or alleviate the symptoms of some serious diseases, such as deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease.

Italy is strong in this promising field. Among the institutes of excellence, the Cyber Brain Hub Lab of Caserta is the first infrastructure in Southern Italy entirely dedicated to the study of Neuroscience and Neurocybernetics. Funded by the Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR) with EU funds worth 12.4 million euro, it is equipped with state of the art technologies.

On the occasion of the international Symposium held on 3 November in Caserta, entitled “Beyond the frontiers of science: where neuroscience and neurotechnology meet ”, which inaugurated the innovative structure, we interviewed Doctor Giulio Nicolò Meldolesi (pictured), President of  Fondazione Neurone Onlus for research in Neuropsychobiology and Clinical Neurosciences, Rome, promoter of the conference together with Fondazione Neuromed.

President Meldolesi, will we really become “transhumans”, as some futurologists already predict?

The sense of “change” is not much a distinguished feature of human beings; rather, if we consider, for example, the first implants of bionic hands, already today it consists of the implementation of electronic circuits placed in direct connection with the biological circuits of the nervous system. Since its appearance on earth, man has shown the propensity to re-create, by controlling and enhancing them, his own vital functions – e.g. motricity, the senses – sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste − memory, calculation, which define human essence, with a tendency to integrate them in order to reach a wider scope. Evolution will thus tend to restore or enhance the nervous functions typical of human beings, creating biological-technological systems in which the exact boundaries between biological and electronic circuits will become gradually more blurred.

You argue that the brain-machine communication is already a reality. What lies ahead? Will we really be able to cure many diseases now without hope for recovery?

The possibility to measure, analyse and employ neurophysiological parameters already offers multiple applications. There exist many ways to record and interpret brain signals: from those that use more invasive intracortical electrodes during brain surgery to those less invasive such as headsets with electrodes to record electroencephalographic signal. The brain-computer interfaces can be connected to the central nervous system, made up of the brain and the spinal cord; or to the peripheral nervous system, consisting of nerves that depart from the central nervous system and spread throughout the body.

As for the brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) connected to the central system, they are applied, for example, in case of paralysis. Paralysis can have different causes, from stroke to car accidents. The most severe cases are those of patients with the so-called locked-in syndrome in which patients are conscious but completely paralyzed and therefore cannot make any voluntary movement. They cannot even express their thoughts. In these cases, Spelling-BCIs provide a communication channel enabling patients to select the letters present on the screen of a computer or a tablet to write the desired word.

One of the most famous BCI applications was aired at the 2014 World Cup: an exoskeleton controlled by neural signals recorded thanks to an electroencephalography (EEG) helmet. The exoskeleton is an external skeleton worn around the lower (in this case) extremities of a paraplegic person that is able to move them thanks to computer controlled hydraulic pistons.

BCI technology can help stroke patients to recover the functionality of, for example, a paralyzed arm. A flexible robotic prosthesis is implanted into the hand of a person needing rehabilitation. Through the modulation of brain activity linked to the movements of the hand, the patient learns how to open and close the prosthesis attached to his or her hand, still motionless, which is passively moved by the prosthesis.

A system that allows to control a wheelchair using brain signal was developed at the École Polytechnique Fédérale – EPFL in Lausanne. In particular, the system uses motor imagery, that is the impulses we create every time we think of moving somethingthe patient learns how to perform the tasks right, left, forward and stop just imagining different movements for each task. As an alternative technology, scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago use sensors to detect residual motor function, e.g., of the shoulders, of paralyzed patients for the control of the wheelchair.

Are there already any successful clinical applications?

Within sensory brain-computer interfaces, the two greatest successes so far probably are:

1) the cochlear implant, or bionic ear. A system aimed at people with severe hearing loss that can recover the perception of sounds and translate them into electrical stimuli applied directly to the cochlear nerve. It consists of an external part, which captures sound, and an internal part, which converts the recorded sound into appropriate electrical signals to be transferred to the electrodes placed in the cochlea. Over 300,000 people worldwide have received cochlear implants;

2) retinal prostheses. On the market there are devices designed for patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a rather common inherited, degenerative disease that can lead to complete blindness. Basically, the idea is to replace the damaged part of the retina with an artificial retina that is able to record the visual information and transform it into electric signals with a meaning that is correctly interpreted by the visual cortex. Currently there are two systems on the market: Argus II and Alpha-IMS, which were approved for commercial use in Europe in March 2011 and March 2013, respectively. Patients are now only able to identify the outlines of objects; however, it offers significant help to people who have completely lost their sight. In the future, devices will have to be improved to allow people to see sharper images and colours.

In all the above cases, what is really lacking, and will be the subject of intense research in the coming years, is the thorough understanding of the neural code, i.e. the code that uses the brain to process and transmit such precise and accurate information.

In such an innovative context, what are Cyber Brain Hub Lab’s projects for the coming years?

With the network of partnerships that we have developed in recent years we are working on a new project concerning the transfer of highly innovative lines of research already present in Northern Italy and in the United States. The 6 lines of research are focused on BCI, Neuroprosthetics, Neuroprostheses and wireless signal transmission, Electrocorticography (ECoG) and data analysis, assistive technology and clinic, motor and cognitive rehabilitation.

One of the most delicate parts of this phase is the building of partnerships with universities, primarily with those present in the territory of Campania and in Southern Italy, offering students, doctoral and postdoctoral students training and job opportunities in Caserta. The relationship with the territory potentially involves all sectors of research and development related to the versatile fields of application of this knowledge (hospitals and clinical applications – neurological diseases, neurorehabilitation, cognitive rehabilitation, cognitive training and neurofeedback, businesses−neuromarketing, automotive, aerospace, ICT, videogames, sports medicine, etc.).

You said that this new research facility belongs to young people… What is the average age of your researchers? What kind of professionals are you specifically interested in? For what career paths?

A centre of excellence built with public money should be at the service of young people and the community. At full capacity, it could host 30-40 researchers, primarily doctoral students with an average age of 23-30 years, and postdocs with an average age of 26-35 years, whose work would be supervised by experienced researchers. The professionals we look for are bioengineers, electronics and computer science engineers, physicists, mathematicians, medical doctors – neurologists, neurosurgeons, radiologists, electrophysiologists, neuropsychologists, physiatrists and rehabilitation technicians.

I would like the facility to be also visited by university and high school students. I would like students to get into contact with this reality since an early age, to be inspired by a new, fascinating form of knowledge.

The possibility of funding industrial doctoral scholarships and postdoc contracts with European NOP and RDF funds would enable young people working at the Cyber Brain Hub Lab to be trained under the supervision of excellent teachers from different national and international research institutes. This would allow them to move between different centres thus expanding their knowledge. In addition, unlike the classic academic paths, they would be included from the beginning in a research programme oriented to pre-industrial and industrial production, in contact with companies and industries, within the production chain from the Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) 2-3 to the production of patents and prototypes (TRL 7-8), promoting the access of young people to the production network.

9. Quali consigli si sente di dare a un giovane italiano affascinato dalla ricerca sul cervello?

E’ il consiglio che darei ai miei figli: continuare a coltivare il sogno di mettere la propria conoscenza a servizio di un possibile straordinario miglioramento della qualità di vita di persone affette da gravi disabilità, diventando maestri di quest’affascinante area del sapere e contribuendo a trasformare lo stile di vita dell’umanità già nel corso dei prossimi 5-10 anni.

10.Indeed an ambitious and multidisciplinary project. What are your partnerships at present and what type of cooperation do you intend to develop at a national and international level?

Given the multidisciplinary nature of the project, we have established cooperation with a number of research institutes and foundations that could cover the main areas of study, thus ensuring a progressive articulation and integration of knowledge. At present, we cooperate with: 1) Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Rovereto (TN)- Neural Computer Interaction Laboratory for signal processing; 2) Department of Electronics and Telecommunications, Polytechnic of Turin, Centre for Space Human Robotics, IIT@PoliTO, Turin, for electronics and microelectronics; 3) Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna of Pisa (SSSA) for biorobotics; 4) Albany Medical College, Albany, New York and 5) Wadsworth Center, Albany, New York, and 6) Epilepsy Surgery Centre, IRCCS Neuromed, all for neuroscience, brain mapping and electrocorticography (ECoG); 7) Laboratory of Neuroelectrical Imaging IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia, Rome for neuroscience and motor and cognitive neurorehabilitation; 8) Department of Computer, Control and Management Engineering Antonio Ruberti (DIAG) and 9) Department of Molecular Medicine, both at “Sapienza” University, Rome, as regards Brain-Computer Interface – BCI and assistive technology (development of devices for rehabilitation, assistance and adaptation of people with severe disabilities). The next step will be the activation of multiple partnerships with universities present in the territory and in Southern Italy. At the international level, there is the important cooperation with École Polytechnique Fédérale – EPFL in Lausanne (with which Scuola Sant’Anna already cooperates) and with the Knight Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UC Berkeley – USA, which is in close contact with the Albany team.