Biomedical: Engineers with big hearts

Walt Besio
Associate Professor Walt Besio is developing sensors that can predict seizures.

The average human brain has somewhere in the order of 100 billion neurons that control how we speak, walk, sleep, feel and just about everything else. When those neurons misfire, medical problems like seizures or Parkinson’s occur.

Engineers at the University of Rhode Island are seeking to better understand how these complex nerves work in hopes of finding cures for debilitating medical problems.

“We understand a lot about the human body,” Professor Ying Sun says. “Yet the brain remains the biggest mystery to scientists.”

Engineers here specialize in coupling electrical engineering expertise with analyzing and controlling electrical signals from human nerves. Tapping into the human nervous system allows the creation of brain-machine interfaces that can predict seizures, control prosthetics and diagnose diseases.

The neuroengineering research fits closely with the College of Engineering’s expertise in signal processing and instrumentation. The work also overlaps with research ongoing at the University’s George and Anne Ryan Institute for Neuroscience. The interdisciplinary institute brings together faculty in the fields of engineering, pharmacy, chemistry, psychology, biology, communicative disorders and more.

Formed in 2013, the institute came on the heels of a national initiative by President Barack Obama to study ways to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders.

“The next frontier is the brain,” says Sun, who also leads the college’s Biomedical Engineering Program.

The URI research has already spawned patents. Sun has received two patents for a digital neuroscience instrument, which has been licensed by industry for commercialization. In addition, Associate Professor Walt Besio has received two patents for his work on concentric ring electrodes that can detect localized electrical signals that are the precursor for seizures.

URI engineers are not stopping at the brain. Through ultrasound, Sun and Adjunct Professor Jack Salisbury hope to learn more about the causes of sleep apnea. Associate Professor Fredrick Vetter’s research is shedding new light on electrophysiology’s role in heart attacks and cardiac diseases. And Professor Samantha Meenach is developing drug delivery vehicles capable of penetrating physiological barriers like tumors, the mucus barrier of the lung or the blood-brain barrier.

“It’s important to have engineers looking at ways to treat human diseases,” Meenach says. “Doctors only see diseases in one light. Engineers can develop solutions that go beyond what doctors could even dream of.”

Ying Sun
Professor, electrical, computer and biomedical engineering
Kelley Hall
4 East Alumni Ave.
Kingston RI 02881 USA

Frederick Vetter
Associate Professor, electrical, computer and biomedical engineering
Kelley Hall
4 East Alumni Ave.
Kingston RI 02881 USA