Skip to main content

News & events

Investing in innovation: UW advances the future of neural engineering

The intersection of engineering and neuroscience promises great advances in health care. The UW is establishing itself as a global leader in the field spurred on by the College of Engineering’s significant investments in faculty and cutting-edge research.

UW neurosurgeons and scientists collaborate with neuroethicists and engineers to empower the brain and spinal cord to recover from injury, inventing new treatment for patients. Photo courtesy of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.

A woman with a spinal cord injury recovers the ability to use her once-paralyzed hands. A man with Parkinson’s disease alleviates his symptoms thanks to deep brain stimulation. A stroke survivor regains control of motor skills.

Using brain recording and stimulation to bring artificial or paralyzed limbs to life and restore function may sound like science fiction, but every day UW engineers are collaborating with researchers throughout campus to make this a reality.

Neural engineering is a rapidly growing area of research, and the UW has risen to prominence in the field by leveraging partnerships across UW Medicine, UW Engineering and UW Arts & Sciences.

CSNE researchers observing patientUW engineers and researchers are developing devices that enhance health, function and independence for people with disabilities. Photo courtesy of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.

Through research hubs like the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), housed in the College of Engineering, neurosurgeons and scientists collaborate with neuroethicists and engineers to develop devices that enhance health, function and independence for people with disabilities. Their goal is to engineer ways to empower the brain and spinal cord to recover from injury, inventing new treatment for patients.

To build on the momentum, UW Engineering is recruiting new faculty who will bring expertise in emerging technologies for brain recording and manipulation and expand collaborations across campus.

"The University of Washington is uniquely equipped to be the world leader in neural engineering," said Michael Bragg, the Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of Engineering. "Our outstanding faculty across campus and at UW Medicine provide a strong foundation for the UW. Our new faculty hires represent a transformative addition to an already world-class team that will solidify and expand our national profile in the field."

Transformative faculty recruitment

These new faculty members will join a UW community already working toward better understanding and interventions in nervous system function.

"These high impact hires in neuroengineering will provide complementary skills to our UW teams to accelerate advancements and make a difference for people with stroke, traumatic brain and spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, paralysis and other mobility problems," said Cecilia Giachelli, the W. Hunter and Dorothy Simpson Endowed Chair in Bioengineering (BioE).

By January 2018, three leading researchers will have joined the UW Engineering faculty through appointments in BioE and Electrical Engineering (EE). All will work as part of CSNE’s research team:

Andre Berndt

Andre Berndt came to the UW in January 2017 as an assistant professor in BioE. A protein engineer specializing in the development of next-generation optogenetic tools — tools using light to control cells in living tissue — for brain stimulation and recording, Berndt received his Ph.D. in 2011 from Humboldt University in Germany. His research focuses on the development of bio-sensors and actuators to monitor and control cell activity.

Azadeh Yazdan-Shahmorad, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan (2011), joins the UW this autumn as the Washington Research Foundation Innovation Assistant Professor of Neuroengineering in BioE and EE. She has developed ways to implement optogenetics in non-human primates and rats to study plasticity in sensorimotor connections. Ultimately she hopes to use neural technologies to develop stimulation-based therapies that help restore function and mobility in people with neurological disorders.

Azadeh Yazdan-Shahmorad

Amy Orsborn

In January 2018, Amy Orsborn will join the UW as the Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor in EE and BioE. Her research explores how the brain learns complex skills and how to combine brain adaptation with machine learning to create natural, intuitive interfaces for patients. A 2013 Ph.D. graduate of the UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco bioengineering program, Orsborn is interested in improving brain-machine interfaces to restore motor function.

Find out more about these new faculty members.

Together we will

"As part of CSNE’s research team, these new faculty members will help propel us to our goal of building devices to engineer plasticity and improve function following stroke, spinal cord injury and other neurological conditions," said Rajesh Rao, co-director of CSNE and professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. "These hires have already turned heads in the field and will cement UW’s position as one of the top institutions in neural engineering."

Amy Obsorn using a microscope Amy Orsborn is one of three new UW Engineering researchers who will bring expertise in emerging technologies for brain recording and manipulation. Photo courtesy of UW Bioengineering.

In addition to EE, BioE and CSNE, partners in this banner faculty recruitment include the UW’s Institute for Neuroengineering, the Washington Research Foundation, the Washington National Primate Research Center, Molecular Engineering & Sciences Institute and the Institute for Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine.

"Hiring extraordinary faculty members in the area of rehabilitation technologies and devices for spinal cord injury and stroke strengthens our ongoing work," said Radha Poovendran, professor and chair of EE. "The barrier to collaboration is indeed zero at UW."

Rajesh Rao named Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professor

After their daughter Karen’s car accident and spinal cord injury, EE alumnus Cherng Jia Hwang (Ph.D. ’66) and Elizabeth Yun Hwang (MLIS ’65) sought care that would improve their daughter’s overall quality of life.

They learned about treatments that could someday transform paralysis diagnoses. However, there were no solutions offering immediate impact for those already suffering from spinal cord injury.

Engineering professors standing with the HwangsFrom left to right: EE chair Radha Poovendran, Elizabeth Hwang, Cherng Jia Hwang, CSNE co-director Rajesh Rao and College of Engineering dean Michael Bragg. Photo courtesy of UW Electrical Engineering.

The Hwangs wanted to do more. With a passion for innovation and a commitment to those suffering from spinal cord injury, they launched The Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professorship. Housed in the UW’s EE department, the professorship is built on the Hwangs’ vision of making life better for those with paralysis. It supports the critical advancement of rehabilitation technologies for spinal cord injury and stroke.

In June, Allen School professor and CSNE co-director Rajesh Rao was named the inaugural Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professor.

"The professorship is an honor," Rao said. "I regard it as a recognition of the great collaborative effort of CSNE students, faculty and staff over the past six years that has made the UW a premier global destination for neural engineering."

This gift comes in the midst of the UW’s most ambitious philanthropic campaign in its history, “Be Boundless — for Washington, For the World,” which seeks to raise $5 billion by 2020.

"The selection of Professor Rao is ideal," Hwang said. "His work lays the groundwork for research on developing a device-based rehabilitation technology to improve the quality of life of people with spinal cord injury and brain damage."

Learn more about the Hwang Endowed Professorship.

Originally published September 18, 2017