Dr. Nikolaus Wenger of Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin has been awarded a Freigeist Fellowship to support the development of brain-computer interfaces for neurological diseases. The Fellowship, which provides approximately €1 million in funding over five years, will enable Dr. Wenger to establish and lead a junior research group. The Volkswagen Foundation awards Freigeist Fellowships to outstanding early-career researchers working at the boundaries between established research disciplines.
The dynamic exchange of information within our brain's neural networks forms the basis of our ability to make decisions, produce movements, and learn in response to reward. The fundamental mechanisms involved in neural network communications may be used to treat neurological disorders, though this process remains challenging. This is, however, precisely what Dr. Wenger of Charité's Department of Neurology with Experimental Neurology is hoping to achieve. He and his team are aiming to understand the precise way in which the brain's dynamic flows of information elicit movement and learn how these processes might be influenced using computers and machine learning algorithms.
To do so, it is necessary for the researchers to work at the boundary between neuroscience and engineering. Continuing improvements in computer processing power allow the researchers to read and interpret the brain's information flows in real time. Situated at the interface between brain and computer, this process is known as a brain-computer interface. The innovation of this project lies in its use of the computer, which will not merely read the information; rather, the researchers will develop a prosthesis for the brain that will allow the information to be transmitted back to the nervous system. This will enable the researchers to glean new insights into the processes involved in information processing inside the human brain.
"Our long-term goal is to apply the findings from our basic research endeavors to neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease and stroke. We want to find out whether neural prostheses can help us improve movement ability in affected patients," explains Dr. Wenger. As a neurologist in training, Dr. Wenger also conducts research as part of the Clinician Scientist program, which is organized and managed by the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) and Charité.
Freigeist Fellowships are a funding initiative of the Volkswagen Foundation. Fellowships are directed at early-career researchers from all disciplines who have set themselves apart from their peers and are actively pursuing highly innovative and high-risk research ideas. This year, eight early-career researchers and their projects succeeded in convincing the Foundation's international panel of experts. An awards ceremony was held on September 14, 2018 in Hanover.