Public Release: 

Rice, UTHealth win $1.02M grant from NSF to study how brain processes language

Feds support new thought on speech

Rice University

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $1.02 million grant to scientists at Rice University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School to study how the brain processes language. The joint research may one day help people who lose the ability to communicate.

The grant is part of a $13.1 million initiative announced by NSF today to support integrative, fundamental research for the federal Brain Initiative introduced by President Barack Obama in 2013. The grant will support the analysis of data from intracranial recordings in patients with epilepsy who undergo brain surgery at the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center.

A language team led by Rice electrical and computer engineer Behnaam Aazhang has a long-term goal to design and prototype wireless, inductively charged implants that could enable neurosurgeons like Dr. Nitin Tandon of UTHealth and Memorial Hermann help patients regain a way to communicate through a computer interface.

"The human language system is amazing," Aazhang said. "We're the only animal that can produce language at such high speed. Our vocabulary is large, and the speed with which we can grab words and put them together is incredible - and not very well understood."

The labs of Aazhang, Tandon and Rice electrical and computer engineer Aydin Babakhani will first collect and analyze data from patients under Tandon's care who volunteer for the study.

Tandon, the director of epilepsy surgery at the Mischer Neuroscience Institute, has performed hundreds of surgeries to implant electrodes in patients with epilepsy to monitor and treat their conditions. "While our patients are in the hospital waiting for seizures to happen so we can localize their epilepsy, we ask them to participate in a variety of language experiments so we can study how brain regions are engaged in this process," he said.

Electrodes that monitor signals produced by neurons provide only coarse data from a limited region of the brain and require connections that pass through the skull. By the end of the three-year project, the team hopes to develop a wireless implant prototype that will transmit data from hundreds of deep-brain and subsurface electrodes.

"Our goal in the early stages will be to focus on a small region of the brain, but in high resolution," Aazhang said.

"People often want to know, 'What does this do? What does that do?' in your brain," Tandon said. "But nothing in the brain does anything by itself. The parts that can load an abstract concept into a word and then tell your mouth to move are not all in one spot. And they have to talk to each other. We want the ability to intercept and translate those signals."

While data collection will be limited to a relative few of the brain's 100 billion neurons, it will be enough to greatly advance knowledge of how they communicate, he said.

"Obviously we would love to know what's happening in every cell in our brains," Tandon said. "From an ethical as well as practical standpoint, that's impossible." Data from his volunteers will be used to build a large database about language-processing networks.

"We can only get a small sample from each person, but if we get hundreds of people together, we will get enough data from all parts of the brain to make a composite map, an atlas, of brain function during speech production," he said.

"We hope to learn what regions cause other regions to generate speech and use tools developed for network analysis in other fields to understand the interactions between these regions," Aazhang said.

Tandon said as many as 100,000 Americans a year suffer brain injuries that impair speech. "We hope one day to be able to provide wireless brain implants that will help these patients communicate via computer programs," he said.

"Using the incomplete language network that remains, these prosthetics would reconstruct speech and allow folks to communicate their basic needs and emotions," he said. "A computer would try to understand what the person wants to say and create a response. That individual would then agree or disagree with the response."

The first step will be the low-power prototype to acquire neural signals and stimulate neurons. "We have extensive experience designing, building and testing integrated analog/radio frequency chips for signal acquisition and stimulation," Babakhani said.

Tandon said Rice, UTHealth and Baylor College of Medicine scientists have worked closely in recent years to form neural engineering collaborations. "This grant is part of a greater effort by us to create in the Texas Medical Center the best place to develop neural devices," he said. "We have a long track record of innovation in cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery. It's now time for this to happen in the neurosciences."

Aazhang is the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice. Tandon is an associate professor in the Vivian L. Smith Department of Neurosurgery at UTHealth and a neurosurgeon with the Mischer Neuroscience Institute. Babakkhani is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice.

NSF also awarded a Brain Initiative grant to Rice researchers Amina Qutub, Jacob Robinson and Dan Wagner, who are working to develop a robust theory of how single neural cells form electrically active networks. That research will be the discussed in a future news release. Qutub is an assistant professor of bioengineering, Robinson is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and Wagner is an associate professor of biochemistry and cell biology.


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Related Materials:

Behnaam Aazhang:

Tandon Lab:

Rice Integrated Systems and Circuits (Babakhani):

Images for download:

A chip fabricated by scientists at Rice University harvests energy and controls sensors with no need for a battery. An implantable version of the chip is planned as part of a National Science Foundation-backed effort to understand how language is processed by the brain and help people who lose the ability to communicate. (Credit: Rice Integrated Systems and Circuits/Rice University)

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