Universitätsmedizin Berlin: Charité neuroscientist awarded ERC Proof of Concept Grant

Neurotechnologies are technical and computer-assisted tools that can be used to analyze brain signals or modify them in a targeted manner. Neurotechnologies include brain-computer interfaces that can help to partially restore communication or mobility in severe paralysis. For example, Prof. Soekadar and his team have enabled quadriplegic patients to eat and drink independently in an outside restaurant using a mind-controlled hand exoskeleton. Another field of work for Soekadar’s team is the use of such tools in the treatment of psychiatric disorders, e.g., depression, addiction or anxiety disorder. In these disorders, various brain functions such as attention, memory or emotion control can be impaired. Thanks to an ERC Starting Grant, Prof. Soekadar and his team are in the process of developing next-generation brain-computer interfaces which are suitable for day-to-day use and capable of reading and interpreting brain activity in real time. Using non-invasive electrical or magnetic stimulation, the researchers will then enhance specific patterns of activity associated with improvements in an individual’s impaired brain function. It is hoped that the combined use of brain-computer interfaces and brain stimulation methods will play an important role in the development of effective and low side-effect treatment options for a range of disorders.

While the performance of current non-invasive brain stimulation methods such as transcranial electric and magnetic stimulation (tES/TMS) are promising, they do not allow for millimeter- and millisecond-precise modulation of neural activity in distributed and deep areas of the human brain. To access these areas, neurosurgical placement of deep brain electrodes is necessary. The researchers hope to use their proof-of-concept research to find a solution to these problems. They will test an innovative non-invasive technique in which stimulation frequencies, phase and magnetic field intensities will be adapted and refined to target specific cell types even in deep-seated areas of the brain with pinpoint accuracy. As part of the ERC Starting Grant-funded project and supported by the NeuroCure/SPARK-BIH program, Khaled Nasr, a PhD student in Soekadar’s lab, implemented a first prototype that enables the pinpoint targeting of individual brain regions. An international patent application was filed to foster fast translation of this precision brain stimulation technique into clinical practice.