NIH BRAIN grant funds Emory-Georgia Tech center for next-generation neurotechnology

Georgia Tech researchers in lobby
Georgia Tech researchers in lobby

Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology received a $4.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) BRAIN Initiative to establish a center to make and globally distribute next-generation micro-technologies for neuroscience. The funds will be awarded over a five-year period.

The Center for Advanced Motor BioEngineering and Research will make cutting-edge biosensors that were developed jointly by the two universities, disseminate them to neuroscientists across the country and around the world, and provide training and other resources for how to use the biosensors to explore a range of research questions.

Co-principal investigators for the project are Samuel Sober, Emory associate professor of biology, and Muhannad Bakir, Georgia Tech professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“Our technology allows you to see data that was invisible before — the electrical signals that single neurons in the spinal cord send to muscles all over the body during complex movements,” Sober says. “This information is like the missing link for trying to understand how the brain controls behavior.”

“The potential to develop new microscale technologies — with advances commonly used in semiconductor chip manufacturing — to enable scientific and medical discoveries in neuroscience is incredibly motivating,” Bakir adds. “It’s the inspiration driving this project.”

The NIH Brain Research Through Advancing Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is aimed at revolutionizing understanding of the human brain. The five-year grant awarded to Emory and Georgia Tech is part of the BRAIN Initiative’s U24 Program, which supports projects to broadly disseminate validated tools and resources for neuroscience research.

Joining the power of two universities

Sober and Bakir combined the expertise of their labs to develop their breakthrough technology — biosensors that precisely record electrical signals from the nervous system to muscles that control movement.

Sober works at the forefront of describing the computational signals that the brain uses to control muscles. He’s particularly interested in how the brain learns, or relearns, motor skills — for example, in a recovering stroke patient.

Currently, clinicians use electromyography, or EMG, as a tool to diagnose the health of muscles and the motor neurons that control them. EMG typically involves the use of a tiny wire, or electrode, inserted into a muscle to record the electrical activity in the muscles.

Sober wanted a much finer resolution of data and more practical methods for his research on how the brain activates and controls muscles in songbirds as they learn to sing. He needed devices tiny enough to implant in the birds’ vocal cords. The devices also needed flexibility and strength to bend with the movement of a muscle without breaking. And each had to contain an array of gold electrodes to gather high-resolution data.

Enter Bakir, who works at the frontier of flexible electronics.

The unique collaboration between the two researchers allowed them to forge new scientific territory. “We leveraged state-of-the art microfabrication tools to solve a problem deeply rooted in the life sciences,” Bakir says.

A tiny device delivers big-picture insights

The researchers’ teams developed flexible electrode arrays that include microscopic 3D contacts for recording muscle activity. Each microarray includes one or more threads, about the width of a human hair. The devices are so tiny that they can be sewn into a muscle like a suture thread or even loaded into a syringe and injected into the muscle, making them minimally invasive. An earlier version of these technologies was developed in the Georgia Tech PhD work of Muneeb Zia, who is currently a Georgia Tech research faculty member.

They dubbed the new devices “Myomatrix arrays,” incorporating the Greek work “myo” for muscle. The high-tech biosensors allow researchers for the first time to record high-resolution data across large groups of muscles simultaneously while subjects perform complex behaviors.

To help test and refine the devices, the researchers have already given them to more than 100 different labs in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia where they have been used to explore neuroscience questions in a variety of species — from the crawling muscles in a caterpillar to the locomotion of a mouse leg and the reaching movements of a monkey’s arm.

Setting the stage for clinical use

Comparing data from across species will help speed discoveries of the normal functioning of the neuromuscular system. That sets the stage for the Myomatrix arrays to become a valuable tool in clinical settings.

The researchers recently completed initial experiments with the biosensors in healthy humans, marking another major step forward.

The devices may eventually enable doctors to diagnose a neurogenerative disease earlier so that interventions can start sooner. The sensitivity of the Myomatrix arrays could also potentially measure any improvement a patient may experience after taking a drug or other therapy.

The BRAIN Initiative grant will allow the researchers to disseminate the technology to even more labs to do longer-term studies.

“A lot of times when new scientific technology gets developed it can be jealously guarded by the inventors for years,” notes Sober. “One of the big impacts of this technology is that we’ve already been giving it away as much as possible in an open-science way. And that’s helped us in turn to keep improving the technology because we are getting so much feedback.”

The Georgia Tech team will continue to fabricate and package the Myomatrix arrays using advanced microelectronic technologies in special “cleanrooms” where the air is purified to such extreme levels that the number of dust particles in the environment can be counted.

A global educational component 

The Emory team will continue to work on assembling and testing the devices, in addition to training users from around the world in the use of technology via Zoom meetings and in-person sessions.

“This project is not just about making and disseminating the devices; it’s also a teaching mission with a big educational component,” Sober says. “We believe that this technology is going to have a major impact on the field of motor neuroscience.”

The project members will work with the NIH to ensure that the devices are distributed to a diverse range of users, institutions and research areas, consistent with the BRAIN Initiative’s goal to make the latest neuroscience tools more broadly accessible.

“We’ll be serving scientific communities that historically have not had access to such technologies or manufacturing capabilities,” Bakir says. “Emory and Georgia Tech are opening the doors to our facilities and to our expertise so that anyone who works in motor neuroscience can access and leverage these new devices, which require hundreds of millions of dollars to build and equip. This democratization of the technology will help to advance motor neuroscience at a more rapid pace.”

This story was originally published by Emory University. Check out their article here.


Photo Caption
Co-principal investigators for the project are (left) Samuel Sober, Emory associate professor of biology, and Muhannad Bakir, Georgia Tech professor of electrical and computer engineering. They combined the expertise of their labs to develop their breakthrough technology.

— Ann Watson, Emory Photo/Video


Contact: Carol Clark