Neuroengineering is a rapidly emerging field that spans the traditional disciplines of neuroscience, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and bioengineering. Current efforts in neuroengineering are typically based on neuronal models that reduce cellular activity to an action potential, or “spike.” The spike then becomes the input to higher-order models of neuronal circuits. Therefore, the major scientific challenge is to record and analyze spike data from large numbers of neurons, and to understand how activity within these neural circuits characterizes neurophysiological substrates. Traditionally, this problem has been considered to belong in the domain of systems neuroscience, where experimental recording methods developed over the last decade have laid a foundation for the exciting development of brain-machine interfaces that can decode user intentions.
Rationale for a new approach to neuroengineering research and education. We now understand that the molecular basis of neuronal function and dysfunction can rarely be reduced to the impact of individual mutations, but rather requires an understanding of the complex network of proteins and signaling processes that determine the state of the cell. Furthermore, a complete description of cell status requires the language and tools of systems biology to integrate multi-scale biological data and to characterize systems in a way that is both quantitative and mechanistic. In addition, multicellular networks of neurons share common conceptual ground with biochemical signaling networks within the neuron. Their dynamics are nonlinear and multivariate – whether they are networks of interacting proteins, networks of membrane channels, or networks of neurons. To characterize these complex processes across multiple levels requires a clear understanding of the concepts of signal processing, feedback elements, and regulatory elements. Additionally, both neuroscientists and systems biologists face common challenges related to combinatorial complexity and high dimensionality of experimental data. The fundamental premise of our education and training program is that the neuroengineer of the future must understand and control both networks – the network within the neuron and the network beyond the neuron (Fig.1). Gaining an ability to control both networks will transform current technology and lay the foundation for optimized therapy for neural disorders.
Use and advantage of problem-based learning to teach neuroengineering. To achieve these objectives, we propose a curriculum based on problem-based learning. In these courses, students will learn neuroengineering principles not by attending a series of lectures, but instead by working through and solving complex, open-ended problems with support and guidance from their instructors.
Emphasis on innovation and introduction to technology development and commercialization. Our students are eager to identify and pursue solutions to larger societal problems, and to develop innovations that will make a positive and lasting contribution to society. The interdisciplinary field of neuroengineering offers students especially abundant possibilities for making such a contribution. Throughout the IGERT, we will use the Competitive Incentive Fund as an engine to drive students to take research beyond the level of discovery. Interactions with medical device companies and optional courses in Technology Entrepreneurship will teach students the processes and practices involved in technology development and commercialization.
Emphasis on professional development. Throughout the IGERT program, students will participate in a broad range of professional development activities. When students enter the IGERT program, they will be matched with one of the program co-investigators, who will serve as their mentor, offering them guidance not only in technical matters, but also in myriad professional development topics. Students will develop communication skills in the context of core courses, and the denouement for the IGERT program will be for students to give an hour-long talk – in the style of a TED (Technology, Entrepreneurship and Design) talk – to the IGERT faculty and students that will be publicly advertised and also available online. These professional development activities will be complemented throughout the training program in both formal ways (through course meetings, reading assignments) and informal ways (through discussions with faculty, mentors, and other students), and students will be made aware of career opportunities in academia, industry, and science policy and will be given opportunities to take electives in these areas. Furthermore, students will develop an appreciation for the global nature and context of neuroengineering research by taking a course in Global, Ethical, and Policy Considerations in Neuroengineering and by participating in international collaborations.