Control Science and Engineering

One of the most promising areas of neurotechnology research in recent years has been brain-computer interfaces and cortical control of neural prostheses. This field has attracted much attention from the media, funding agencies, and scientific researchers and there are now a number of institutions performing research, generally using primates.

As it turns out, there are those who feel that not all of the attention has been fully appropriate. At the recent NIH Neural Prosthesis Workshop, one of the leading researchers in cortical control, Andy Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, took exception to an article published in Scientific American magazine by two other researchers in the field. Schwartz felt that the article’s reported history was not entirely accurate and he offered his own timeline of key milestones. According to Schwartz, the proper recognition of which researcher arrived first at an important scientific finding could have an effect on obtaining funding.

Of course, this is not the only field of science where investigators have squabbled over whose findings came first. But it perhaps points up one distinction between scientific and engineering approaches to a problem. Whereas pure scientists are more likely to fight for supremacy over scientific recognition, engineers are more likely to race to become the first to patent a device or process. The stakes in these races have more to do with royalty streams than achieving status as scientific royalty.

Hopefully, a third motivation, the desire to restore function to people suffering from neurological disorders—and to do it in their lifetime—can play a role when it comes to cortical control of motor prostheses. Some observers believe that much of the work on elucidating a precise mechanism of neural response or building an elaborate model of brain control signals may be overkill. Users of current and future generations of neural prostheses may only need a simple on/off switch to activate their device, and that capability was demonstrated long ago. What’s needed now is more effort to marry that knowledge with functional electrical stimulation systems in humans, as opposed to monkey-controlled robots.

There are other examples of where it would be useful to have greater cooperation between neuroscientists and neural engineers. Neural engineer Warren Grill (whose work, by the way probably gets short shrift in this publication because of his editorial status with us) has spent much of his time tracing the topological arrangement of fibers and fascicles within nerve trunks and the spinal cord, an endeavor that one might have expected to have been completed by neuroanatomists years ago. Similarly, developers of deep-brain stimulation systems are uncovering new details about the normal function of structures such as the subthalamic nuclei and globus pallidus, information, that, had it been available, might have hastened the development of effective neuromodulation treatments for movement disorders.

This is not to suggest that neuroscientists should not be free to pursue research on neural mechanisms for the sake of understanding, or that neural engineers should stay out research on neuroanatomy or neurophysiology. Rather, our point is that with so many people in need of more effective treatment for neurological diseases and disorders, a greater sense of team effort between scientists and engineers working to alleviate suffering might be helpful.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher



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