Teaching life sciences in engineering schools has become more and more common in these last years. Indeed, medicine and technology are deeply correlated. With these two disciplines quickly evolving, this relationship is getting even stronger. Among the thousands of possibilities from this collaboration, neurology receives a special attention due to brain’s complexity and its essential role in the human body.
The brain is a central organ that controls functions, movements, sensations and thoughts. This results from the millions of simple mechanisms occurring every second in a biological body. This complexity has always attracted engineers and has sometimes created passion. With the evolution of medical treatments, the study of brain - from a technical point of view - becomes extremely relevant.
Technology has so much to give to the medical sector but the reverse is also true! Medical imaging to better understand the internal structures, or neuronal connections to inspire machine learning, electronic devices to trigger body reactions and movements, and biological bodily reactions applied to sensors for product detection… The list is not exhaustive and the collaboration is starting just now.
In this article, I will describe one of the most relevant collaborations between medicine and technology in neurology and I hope to convince you that innovation is not possible without gathering knowledge from many sciences.
During my masters, I had the chance to spend one year at EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne), an advanced school of engineering in Switzerland. They have dedicated an entire faculty to the relationship between life sciences and technology and have a particularly high proportion of their work linked to the local hospital, CHUV.
There, I have discovered efficient research. The finances are never really a problem, which gave me the opportunity to work on one of the best MRI machines in Europe, on very interesting projects involving image analysis in a top lab, in addition to meeting famous genius professors from all over the world.
On top of that, they host an important European collaboration called the Blue Brain Project.
The project aims to build a biologically-consistent computer model of the human brain and focuses on understanding the structure and the functions of this important organ. Following the founder of the project, Prof. Markram, “more than 35 000 articles are published every year but a researcher can only read about 100 per year”. The project has the ambition of integrating - in one model - the knowledge that is currently spread all over the world.
It all started in 2005 when a researcher from EPFL convinced IBM to create the project with a team of 35 biologists, physicists, mathematicians and programmers that quickly became dozens of partners from many institutions. Three years later, they had been able to reproduce the behavior of 10000 neurons and connected to more than 30 million of synapses by studying tissues slices, electrical records, and brain images.
Figure 1: Brain network
In 2013, a second project was created, the Human Brain Project, to specifically focus on humans, where there were multiple objectives to be achieved. First is studying the function and structure of the brain from different levels and perspectives. Second is to create a platform to test digital models of diseases and improving diagnosis. The final goal is the application of the new knowledge on this structure to information and communication technologies.
The group expects innovations in energetic efficiency management, improvements of the reliability of the code and the machine, and more complex and efficient programming procedures.
Nevertheless, Human Brain Project project is not approved by all in the scientific community. Some people point out the waste of money – €1 billion – for a project that may not achieve the fixed goals.
At the launch of the second project in 2013, the opponents criticized the lack of results from the first project and its scientific strategy. Markram responded to these attacks by publishing two years after an article in Cell where he described the simulation of the rat brain. This almost immediately quashed the multiple rumors and critics on the project’s ethics.
The evolution and success of such project rely mainly on multidisciplinary teams, and the integration of engineers in scientific developments. On one hand, engineers provide the capability to adapt to situations, to find solutions, and to implement them. On the other hand, scientists bring their deep knowledge on the subject and their capability to understand and discover new mechanisms.
More and more, the synergy between the biologists, medical doctors, and engineers becomes crucial to achieve the ambitious objective of solving the mysteries of human brain.