Europe's new neural engineers
With EU support, academic and industrial partners across Europe came together to train early-career researchers in the emerging field of neural engineering. The skills learned promise to advance fields as diverse as cognitive computing and prosthetic limb control.
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Neural engineering may be an unfamiliar term but it describes a growing multi-disciplinary field of research that explores the ways in which neuroscience and engineering can come together to understand, repair, replace, enhance and exploit the properties of neural systems.
“As neural engineering is an emerging field, most scientists pursuing related topics have strengths in one or two areas, but have not received broad multi-disciplinary training as it is relatively hard to come by,” says Stephen Coombes of Nottingham University, who coordinated the EU-funded NETT project.
Now that NETT is finished, many of the fellows have secured jobs in academia or industry where they can put their new skills and knowledge to good use. Although it is too early for these young people to make their mark on the research community, Coombes identifies three areas where neural engineering is most likely to make a visible impact.
One is communication with computers. Are there more natural ways to communicate with a computer than by using a keyboard or mouse? It’s great to type things in but it’s much easier to talk.
Another is ‘cognitive’ computing, whereby machines will rely more on human-style thinking than the ‘brute force’ approach that currently gives computers a semblance of thought. “If we could understand how neurons work maybe we could reverse engineer them to build models that could go into the next generation of cognitive computers.”
A third area is developing prosthetic limbs that are closely linked to the user’s nervous system so they can move in a more human-like way.
Training for the future
But Coombes stresses that the principal gain of the NETT project is not in scientific advances today, but in sowing the seeds for future discoveries and innovation.
“The big success is that we have, across Europe, a collective of like-minded individuals who are ready to develop their own scientific careers in the new discipline of neural engineering,” he says.
Coombes, a mathematician with an interest in neuroscience, worked with colleagues in other European countries to create the NETT training programme. Research topics were chosen to further new technologies, such as novel speech recognisers, neural-inspired laser networks for information processing, and robots with cognitive skills.
“The researchers typically have backgrounds in the physical sciences, computer science and engineering rather than in the biological sciences,” Coombes says. Some had already been working in industry and took the opportunity to return to education to obtain a PhD.
Over the four-year project, the fellows also attended workshops, took part in exchanges with other institutions and spent time working with the industrial partners associated with the network.
“We provided training in basic research methodology as well as in soft skills how to advertise your work, deliver your work and engage people on the outside,” explains Coombes. “Although NETT was a multi-site network with only two or three students at any one institution, we came together pretty regularly. It created quite a familial bond between the students.”
A highlight of the project came in 2015 when the fellows organised their own three-day conference in Barcelona.
He says: “They were very enthusiastic and proactive and went out and attracted some very big names in the field of neural engineering. That was a really good success for our cohort-style training you bring young scientists together and with the appropriate training we could trust them to run internationally leading events.”