The ten new Chairs in Emerging Technologies will focus on developing technologies that have the potential to bring significant economic and societal benefits to the UK, ensuring that the UK is a driving force for global technological innovation.
Supported by the UK government’s National Productivity Investment Fund, the Academy is committing £1.3 million to each of the ten-year programmes. The support will enable these engineers to focus on advancing the novel technologies from basic research through to real deployment and commercialisation.
Dr Timothy Denison has been appointed as one of these Chairs and will be based between the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences and the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford. His project is entitled ‘Brain engineering: towards closed-loop, non-invasive bioelectronic therapies for neurological disorders’.
When treating neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, doctors have generally relied on drug discoveries, but this is often a costly and lengthy process. With the significant personal and societal costs incurred by such disorders there’s an imperative to invest in alternative approaches to treatment.
Bioelectronics work directly with the body’s own nervous system to monitor brain signals and, as needed, tweak the electrical activity within nerves to alleviate symptoms of diseases. Despite clinical success in treating symptoms of diseases like Parkinson’s, existing bioelectronic systems have several limitations that arguably limit their adoption. For example, currently a skilled surgeon is required to implant the system in a patient, and the system’s output is inflexible in contrast to the rapidly changing and reactive activity of the nervous system.
The microelectronic basis and digital programmability of bioelectronic systems means that there is huge potential for flexibility in both research and future medical device design. Emerging technology offers the possibility of building restorative neural systems which are adaptable and programmable for various diseases, as well as specifically for individuals. The codes used to programme the systems can be modified as scientific understanding of the brain evolves, and also be used to rapidly respond to physiological fluctuations within the body. But to realize this potential, we first need a better understanding of how the brain functions and responds to bioelectronic interventions.
Professor Denison’s programme will explore the future of adaptive, minimally-invasive bioelectronics by, firstly, developing the key scientific instrumentation required to better understand how the brain functions and adapts to a range of interventions including ultrasound and transcranial electro-magnetic stimulation, and then in collaboration with clinician-partners, applying these tools and know-how to prototype concepts for future disease treatments; all with the goal of ultimate clinical translation.