Maryam Shanechi, 33
Using control theory to build better interfaces to the brain.
“I was born in Iran. My family immigrated to Canada when I was 16. My parents wanted a better education for me, my brother, and sister. I started out working on information theory, coding theory, and wireless communication. But I wanted to more directly impact people in my research. When I was looking for a PhD topic, I came across neuroscience, and I realized that the same principle could be used to treat brain disorders.
“So I moved from decoding wireless signals to decoding brain signals. I develop brain-machine interfaces that record the activity of neurons while someone plans a movement. This could one day allow disabled patients to move just by thinking about it.
“My work takes a lot of insight from control theory. Say you reach for a glass of water—your brain wants that to happen in a certain time frame, and it’s getting visual feedback, and you can adjust the speed. The brain acts as a ‘feedback controller,’ and I have built models for how that works. I also work on brain-machine interfaces for anesthesia. We decode the level of brain activity and adjust the anesthetic accordingly.
“I started as a professor at Cornell University and moved to the University of Southern California in July. As part of the Obama BRAIN initiative, I’m involved in a project to revolutionize treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders, such as PTSD and depression. We will create a brain-machine interface to decode the neuropsychiatric state of the brain, and decide on a set of electrical stimulation patterns to alleviate the symptoms in real time. This would be an automatic controller—a closed-loop system. And I will build that.
“We know nothing about the signatures of neuropsychiatric disorders in the brain. We need to discover those. I am really excited, because there is so much we don’t know.”
—as told to Antonio Regalado
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