Reading Minds to Better Lives

Armed with sensors the size of a dime, this professor aims to detect and stop seizures before they occur.

Imagine if we could detect and stop seizures before they occur. Imagine if our understanding of brain signals could, without surgery, let paralyzed people move. Engineering Professor Walter Besio imagines such a world is possible.

With the help of groundbreaking sensor technology, Besio and his students are demonstrating that monitoring brainwaves can revolutionize medicine. Known as concentric electrodes, these metal sensors about the size of a dime sit on the scalp and monitor brainwaves. Thanks to the concentric nature of the electrodes, the sensors can pinpoint signals and filter out interference.

The sensors can detect seizures and automatically provide an electrical stimulation to stop them. Now Besio wants to refine the sensors so they predict impending seizures and send a counter signal to stop the attacks from occurring.

Professor Besio is using biomedical technology to detect and prevent seizures.

Besio’s sensors and electronics also detect the intention to move a body part. He envisions interpreting these intentions and leveraging them to control computers, robots or even the limbs of paralyzed people.

“Many people are doing basic neuroscience research,” Besio says. “But if you want to get technology out of the lab to help people, that is a specialty of engineers.”

At the University of Rhode Island, Besio helped establish the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program, which brings together about 35 professors, who welcomed their first class this spring. The program is unique for partnering a large cadre of engineering faculty with those in disciplines like pharmacy to offer a comprehensive learning experience to students.

“Today to be a leader in your field it is not enough to have a strong foundation or depth in your area,” Besio says. “You also need expertise in multiple fields and excellent collaborators.”

Expertise also means learning how to bring technology developed in the lab to hospitals and medical offices. Last fall, Besio completed a three-month course at Stanford University sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which focused on methods to take innovative research to the market quickly.

Besio well knows that people need his technology. An automobile accident left his brother Jim paralyzed from the neck down. While an undergraduate electrical engineering student, Besio vowed to apply his engineering studies to helping his brother. Now as a professor, Besio takes his students to visit hospitals and meet patients like Jim.

“They see people really want and need this technology,” Besio says. “It’s no longer just what I’m asking them to do in the lab.”