The neurosurgeon who examined Sakhrat Khizroev after he lost his eyesight in a horrible accident told the young scientist that his vision would come back slowly. Then, after months of living in darkness, it finally started to return.
At first, the images were blurry and fragmented, as if someone were looking through a narrow window and seeing only part of a picture. But with each passing day, everything Khizroev looked at appeared clearer, sharper.
It wasn’t until his eyesight had fully been restored that Khizroev grew to appreciate just how intricate and complex the organ that controls it really is. “The CPU of the internet of the body,” said the University of Miami researcher in describing the human brain as the central processing unit. “If only we could tap completely into it and unlock all of its secrets.”
Today, Khizroev may be on the cusp of doing just that. Using a novel class of ultrafine units called magnetoelectric nanoparticles (MENPs), he and his research group are perfecting a method to talk to the brain without wires or implants. “Other efforts have used external instruments like microelectrodes to try to solve the mysteries of the brain, but because of its complexity and difficulty in accessing, such methods can only go so far,” said Khizroev, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University’s College of Engineering. “There are 80 billion neurons in the human brain, so imagine how difficult it would be to attach 80 billion microelectrodes to access every single neuron. The only way to truly tap in is wirelessly—through nanotechnology.”
So Khizroev and his research team plan to introduce millions of MENs intravenously into the body, allowing the particles, which are two thousand times thinner than a human hair, to move freely through the bloodstream and cross the protective blood-brain barrier, the filtering mechanism that prevents toxins and pathogens from reaching the brain while at the same time allowing vital nutrients to get through.
“Our brains are pretty much electrical engines, and what’s so remarkable about MENPs is that they understand not only the language of electric fields but also that of magnetic fields,” Khizroev explained. “Once the MENPs are inside the brain and positioned next to neurons, we can stimulate them with an external magnetic field, and they in turn produce an electric field we can speak to, without having to use wires.”
To extract the information in real time, his team would use a special helmet with magnetic transducers that send and pick up signals. The group’s research has all the elements of a great science fiction novel, but in this case, the work is fact, not concoction.
From targeted drug delivery for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases to the exchange of data between computers and the brain, the implications are enormous, said Khizroev, who holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Miller School of Medicine.
“We will learn how to treat Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and even depression. Not only could it revolutionize the field of neuroscience, but it could potentially change many other aspects of our health care system,” he said. “We will finally learn how the computing architecture of the brain works. And in turn, such knowledge will help enable neuromorphic computing in which computers mimic the way the brain works. We’ll be able to perform computations with specifications achieved today only with the most advanced supercomputers.”
Khizroev is developing his wireless brain interface project with Ping Liang, cofounder of Cellular Nanomed, an Irvine, California-based biotechnology company. Back in 2010, the two scientists helped pioneer medical applications of MENPs.
Federal entities like the National Science Foundation have taken a keen interest in Khizroev’s research, funding the scientist to take on projects that exploit his MEN technology. In the most recent initiative, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has funded the College of Engineering professor to develop a wireless brain-computer interface that would enable fast, effective, and intuitive hands-free interaction with military systems by able-bodied service members. The so-called BrainSTORMS project is now in its second phase and is expected to be completed in 2024.
“Right now, we’re just scratching the surface,” Khizroev said of his group’s groundbreaking work, which, in addition to computer and electrical engineers, involves neuroscientists, physicists, chemists, materials scientists, and biologists. His team of graduate and undergraduate students—Elric Zhang, Brayan Navarrete, Mostafa Abdel-Mottaleb, Manuel Campos-Alberteris, Yagmur Akin Yildirim, and Isadora Takako Smith—are playing instrumental roles on the project, he said.
Said Khizroev, “We can only imagine how our everyday life will change with such technology.”
By Robert C. Jones Jr.