Hi everyone! My name is Ben Rees, and I am a senior from Los Alamos, New Mexico, majoring in neuroscience and minoring in chemistry and applied science & engineering. Alongside being a Gil intern, I am completing my honors thesis in the UNC Neuroscience Center under Dr. Mark Zylka, where I am exploring the link between the biochemical and genetic alterations seen in neurofibromatosis type-1 and the neurological symptomatic expression of the condition. Broadly speaking, my research interests focus on using the intersection of neuroscience and engineering to support patients with neurological disease. After graduating this May, I will be starting medical school and hope to continue to explore and expand on this research interest in a future career in medicine. Outside of school, I enjoy rock climbing, running, and playing for UNC’s ice hockey team.
I am completing my Gil internship this semester with Teledyne Technologies. Teledyne Scientific, my division within the broader company, creates new technologies largely through the use of U.S. government research and development contracts. Through innovation in science and engineering, Teledyne Scientific aims to provide solutions to their customer’s technical problems. Located in Research Triangle Park, the Durham branch of the company hosts their fundamental and applied neuroscience research programs. My mentor, Dr. Steve Simons, is a technical manager in the Applied Sciences Division, and he helps lead the capture and execution of these research and development programs.
This semester, I am working as part of the Multifocal Integrated Non-Invasive Device for Sensing and Stimulation (MINDSS) team. MINDSS is a project aimed at developing a novel non-invasive brain-machine interface (BMI) that surpasses both the spatial and temporal resolution that is currently only possible through more invasive technology (e.g. microelectrodes). This project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) through their Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, a multi-phase funding program that is helping select teams develop the future of high-performance non-invasive BMIs. A BMI links the brain to a digital device external to the body and is inherently bidirectional in information transfer, enabling neural firing to be both monitored and stimulated by the device. Current practical and technological limitations prevent the spatial and temporal resolution of non-invasive BMIs from reaching a level that would enable the user to accurately and rapidly manipulate a device with multiple degrees of freedom in real time, such as an advanced prosthetic or drone. The MINDSS project aims to achieve this level of functionality through the use of optically-pumped magnetometers, a small low-energy sensor that can detect small changes in magnetic field caused by neural firing, and focused ultrasonic stimulation (FUS), a technique that uses guided ultrasonic waves to mechanically excite neurons in a concentrated region of space.
My work focuses on the latter part of this project. So far, I am looking at validating the efficacy of localized excitation of neurons through our proposed method of FUS. The ultrasonic excitation device has several ultrasonic transducers that generate specifically angled waves that overlap in a small, localized area of the cortex. Alone, the waves generated by one of these transducers is not enough to mechanically deform the voltage gated ion channels along the neuron membrane and trigger an action potential, but the aggregate force of the waves within the small overlapping region is enough mechanical force to cause the neurons within the region to fire. To validate that the FUS is having the desired impact, we conducted experiments that ultrasonically stimulated a region of the frontal eye field of a macaque, a region of the brain that helps control visual focus and eye movements. When stimulated, the eye makes a rapid movement away from wherever it had previously been focused and instead moves towards the region specific to the stimulated neurons. We implanted microelectrodes into the regions of the frontal eye field that we were stimulating, and through the use of both eye-tracking data and the local field potential from the electrodes, I am validating that the FUS is achieving the desired stimulatory impact, both behaviorally and physiologically. I am writing algorithms that analyze the local field potential data, looking at changes in neural oscillatory behavior in the region as well as aggregate neuronal activity compared to eye movements with and without stimulation.
Although I haven’t been working at Teledyne for long, I’ve learned a lot about both neuroscience and engineering as well as professionalism. This position is expanding my understanding about the nuts and bolts of how BMI technologies work and the myriad techniques and tools we have to study the brain. Further, this experience is helping clarify both the potential and limitations of this field and the current state of progress. I am part of a large team working on developing this technology, and seeing how streamlined collaboration is vital to the success of this project has influenced the way I view research and the development of scientific progress. This experience has strengthened my interest in this field and better equipped me with the tools and mindset to approach these problems in the future.