UW, Microsoft Research Aim to Turn Northwest Into a Neural Engineering Hotspot

10/10/08Follow @xconomy

The minute I walked into an auditorium at Microsoft Research in Redmond last night, I knew this was going to be a fun event. In foot-high letters, someone wrote on a white board, “FOOD BEHIND THIS WALL. EAT.”

It turns out that that someone, who clearly had an innate sense for how to get people to mingle, was the University of Washington’s Yoky Matsuoka, the MacArthur “genius” grant winner, and Xconomist. She was trying to light a spark for the opening session of a three-day summit she organized with Rajesh Rao of the UW, and Desney Tan of Microsoft Research. The National Science Foundation is also helping sponsor the convention.

The goals of this effort, called the Pacific Northwest Center for Neural Engineering, are to foster more collaboration among the region’s engineers, physicists, biologists, computer scientists, and neuroscientists. About 145 people signed up for the conference, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, although I didn’t see him last night. Too bad—he missed out on a fascinating talk about neuroscience of insects, specifically moths, by UW researcher Tom Daniel. He noted that insects like moths acquire, process, analyze, store, and retrieve vast amounts of information through their neurons to control actions like flying. “Tiny brains do amazing things,” he said.

This clearly got people at Microsoft thinking and talking, exactly what the organizers had in mind. “People need to talk. If we can get people together to talk, we’re achieving something here,” Matsuoka says.

There were lots of lively conversations early on—conducted over mini-hamburgers—that could lead to new experiments, industry partnerships, or grants, Matsuoka says. She and the other organizers also note that many companies are forming research teams, and partnerships with academic labs, to develop neural engineering products like implantable chips and human-device interfaces for personal assistance and rehab. “The time is right for uniting the neural engineering efforts of academia and industry in the Pacific Northwest region,” the organizers said in a letter to attendees. “Our vision is to build a center that will be the No. 1 destination for students, researchers, and companies that want to be at the forefront of human and assistive device integration and the neural engineering field.”

Daniel, who resembles Apple CEO Steve Jobs with the wire-rim glasses and black turtleneck, truly gave a riveting (and often humorous) talk about monitoring neural activity in moths during flight—work that has been funded by various military agencies and published in Science. He even passed a live moth around the audience, which seemed to give people the willies. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he said.

Then people in the audience threw some terrific questions at Daniel after his talk—always a hallmark of a lively event—including a couple that stumped him. (This was over my head, but it had something to do with the efficiency of electrical stimulation of neurons compared with chemical stimulation.)

It seemed like Daniel knew he was going to face some really keen questioning from this audience, since he started out saying, “I feel like Daniel in the neuroengineer’s den.” It looks to me like the neuroengineering den is getting livelier around here.

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