By Madeleine Stone @themadstone
The human brain is often likened to a very advanced computer. But the process of information flow in the brain is fundamentally different from that in a silicon chip. While computer circuits transmit information through a series of binary choices, zeros or ones, neural synapses can finely tune their electrical impulses along a gradient, allowing for near infinite variation in signal strength.
Developing technology that can bridge that gap is a daunting task, but, for University of Pennsylvania electrical engineer Duygu Kuzum, it was the perfect challenge.
“We know how computers work, but we don’t have a very good understanding of how the brain works,” Kuzum says. “So I thought, why not focus my efforts on the brain, which is essentially a very complex computer?”
Kuzum is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Bioengineering, working with Brian Litt, a professor of bioengineering and of neurology in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. Her research focuses on developing graphene-based brain electrodes, that, when implanted in neural tissue, can simultaneously record the activity of neurons and image their behavior. This technology will allow scientists to better understand how information is processed and conveyed in the brain, with far ranging applications.
Kuzum is being honored for her groundbreaking work as one of the MIT Technology Review’s annual “Innovators Under 35.” Previous winners include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google; Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook; Jonathan Ive, the chief designer of Apple; and David Karp, the creator of Tumblr.
Originally from Ankara, Turkey, Kuzum came to the United States to attend graduate school at Stanford University. Her Ph.D. in electrical engineering initially focused on developing high-performance electronics for computer processors. Towards the end of graduate school, however, she became interested in neural applications.
“In computer engineering, everything is carefully designed,” says Kuzum. “If a problem arises, you can just go and fix it. But with the brain, we try to fix things without understanding how the system works. That opens a lot of opportunities for research.”
Kuzum worked with Stanford colleagues during and after grad school to design nanoelectronic devices that process information in the same way neural synapses do.
“In the future, this technology may allow scientists to design electronic implants that smoothly integrate with biological tissue,” says Kuzum.
Kuzum joined the Litt lab in 2011, where her research is at the interface of electronics and neurology. Penn’s new Center for Neuroengineering and Therapeutics is situated to facilitate this interdisciplinary research.
Kuzum works closely with scientists in the Materials Science Department and at the Singh Center for Nanotechnology’s Nanofabrication Facility. She also conducts clinical experiments in collaboration with biomedical researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine and at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, using their state-of-the-art functional optical imaging technology.
For the past year and a half, Kuzum has been developing transparent brain electrodes. Transparency offers a unique advantage when it comes to brain imaging.
“Standard electrodes are opaque, made of metals and insulating materials,” says Kuzum. “If you put them in a tissue and try to image it, you won’t see what’s going on underneath it. But, with transparent electrodes, we can see exactly which neurons are firing and how they interact.”
Kuzum believes this technology could significantly advance scientists’ understanding of neurological disorders such as epilepsy.
“Most neurological disorders relate to circuit malfunctions in the brain,” she says. “If we understand which circuits are malfunctioning and how, we can develop more positive, targeted treatments.”
In the future, Kuzum hopes to follow up on her electronic synapse work and continue developing neuronal interfaces. She is excited by the possibility of new collaborations with researchers specializing in electrophysiology in Penn’s Neurology and Neuroscience departments.