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Pioneers

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35 Innovators Under 35

Pioneers

The frontiers of science provide ample space to explore innovation. Meet nine of the pioneers.

Maryam Shanechi, 33

Using control theory to build better interfaces to the brain.

  • by Antonio Regalado
  • “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 wateryour 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 controllera 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

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2014
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