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Reading the brain, wirelessly

Wireless brain implants could one day help treat patients suffering from epileptic seizures, gain the use of paralyzed limbs, or solve the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease and mental disorders.

Third-year Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) PhD student, Cedric Lee, is among those working to advance this technology at The Ohio State University, by applying electromagnetic research toward the unobtrusive reading of brain signals.

Primarily associated with Ohio State’s ElectroScience Laboratory (ESL), Lee designed a fully-passive, implanted neural sensor, for wireless brain signal monitoring. It requires no battery or power harvester of any kind.

Technology like this could someday allow doctors to study brain signals in real-time, using inconspicuous sensors, and without negatively affecting a patient's daily activities. 

Current brain implant methods typically employ the use of wires that connect between the implants and the exterior power unit, and/or rechargeable battery packs attached to the implant, which can increase the risk of infection or heat up and damage brain tissue.

For his work, Lee recently won two awards from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Antennas and Propagation Society.

He received the organization’s Doctoral Research Award for his project, “A High-Sensitivity Fully Passive Neurosending System for Wireless Brain Signal Monitoring.” The prize includes a $2,500 fellowship to help advance his research and studies in electromagnetics. 

Lee also won the best student paper award from the 2014 IEEE International Microwave Workshop Series for Biomedical and Healthcare Applications he attended in London last December. His winning paper was titled, “Fully Passive and Wireless Detection of Very-Low-Power Brain Signals."

While there are other fully-passive wireless implants in existence, the designs lack the ability to detect very low-powered brain signals. Lee's work improves upon these devices by up to 22dB.

"This remarkable sensitivity implies the reading of most known and useful brain signals, and introduces new possibilities in neuropotential detection for a very wide range of applications," Lee explains in his work.

The designs and research were written under the guidance of Lee's co-advisors, Ohio State senior research associate Asimina Kiourti and ESL director/professor John Volakis.

“Work is already in progress to validate our implant’s performance in animals, and potentially in humans," Kiourti said. "Overall, this is a game-changing capability that can transform healthcare delivery for epileptics, paraplegics, and people with several other neurological disorders.”

Lee said he first came to Ohio State on scholarship from his home in Singapore. He was focused on engineering, but unsure of the best path to take in his career.

After arriving, he said, Volakis soon took him under his proverbial wing by offering “inspiring and energetic” guidance toward the field of electromagnetics. Lee said he now finds himself immersed in research he finds both “exciting and challenging.”

“I also get to work with a great biomedical research team co-led by Dr. Kiourti that further spurs me on,” Lee said. “The multi-faceted and deep technical skills acquired from working on the research project, I believe, has prepared me well for a job in the RF/microwave circuit and antenna design industry. This is where my heart lies.”

In more accolades for the team's research work, their latest journal paper, “A Wireless Fully-Passive Neural Recording Device for Unobtrusive Neuropotential Monitoring” is scheduled to appear in the IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering (TBME) in January 2016. The paper will also be honored as the featured research on the organization's website front page, and will be distributed as a part of the January 2016 TBME monthly highlights, which is delivered to a large number of recipients in the international biomedical engineering community. 

Additionally, Kiourti recently won the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) Young Investigator award for the paper “Fully-Passive Wireless Implants for Unobtrusive Brain Signal Monitoring,” at the IEEE EMBS BRAIN Grand Challenges Conference that took place in Washington DC, Nov. 13–14, 2014.