The UH BRAIN Center is a partnership of academia, industry and government to approach some of the most critical challenges in health and society. They specialize in building technologies that promote health and reduce disability, not only in the U.S. but worldwide.
The Center’s primary goal is to accelerate the development, validation and deployment of neurotechnologies. As the BRAIN Center moves into Phase 2 through 2027, the focus is on workforce development, outreach and inclusiveness.
UH engineering professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal is the principal researcher involved with the BRAIN Center. For him, the BRAIN Center is important because it provides crucial training not offered elsewhere.
“We need to train the next generation of experts, engineers and scientists that can sustain these innovations and can maintain these devices,” Contreras-Vidal said. “There are few options in the U.S. to get trained on these.”
But training is just a part of the BRAIN Center’s mission. Contreras-Vidal said that a large part of their focus is also devoted to community outreach and awareness.
“We’re trying to make the research and development process more inclusive, so that people of all areas, educational levels and backgrounds can participate and provide their input,” Contreras-Vidal said. “So now we can develop devices that people want to use.”
The BRAIN Center hopes to accomplish this through offering facility tours to teachers and schools, as well as participating in various technology expos around the city.
In terms of research, the Center’s major project currently focuses on brain-computer interfaces meant to assist in speech production. The BCIs currently being developed work by analyzing electrical activity in the brain and translating it to speech.
“It’s a translation between brain activity related to speech and synthesizers that can generate speech for you,” Contreras-Vidal said.
The BCIs produced by Contreras-Vidal are meant to serve as an alternative to the current method of implanting a chip directly into a patient’s brain. This option is both expensive and invasive.
Another focus of the BRAIN Center is expanding access to children. Children’s minds are more malleable, and thus more suited to adapting to technology like the BRAIN Center’s BCIs, Contreras-Vidal said.
“Their body and the brain they’re changing. They’re very plastic. In my mind, children are the ideal candidates for neurotechnology,” Contreras-Vidal said. “Their minds can actually learn to use the technology in a better way and a more efficient way.”
Though it may seem to be the work of science fiction, the BRAIN Center wants to expand research opportunities to students of all levels, including undergraduates and even high school students.
“The nice thing about opening the Center to high school students is it opens not only their eyes but their minds,” Contreras-Vidal said. “They see how research is conducted and understand the need for the technology for people with disabilities and I have seen how this experience can grow and then (they) go on to pursue undergraduate degrees in this area.”
So far the BRAIN Center has taken in 150 students, of which a handful of that number were local high school students. In the future, the Center plans to continue offering training to all students and hopes to increase the number of high school students involved with the program in the near future.