Students prototype a device for recording and transmitting neural signals.

For their capstone design project, a team of electrical and computer engineering majors developed an instrument to gather signals from a patient’s brain and transmit them wirelessly to a computer for analysis. The prototype — a cap with sensors — was the brainchild of junior Aidan Curtis and seniors Sophia D’Amico, Andres Gomez, Benjamin Klimko and Irene Zhang. Theirs was one of more than 100 teams working at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen last year.

While their design for direct brain recordings would have applications for a variety of neurological illnesses, the team had patients with severe epilepsy in mind. Intractable epilepsy may require surgical removal of small parts of the brain where seizures originate. First, doctors must figure out which parts are relevant, and to do so requires implanting electrodes that collect data during seizures.

“That means patients need to be in the hospital for a long enough period to get the large sample size of seizures [doctors] need to understand where they’re coming from,” Curtis said. “There are a lot of costs associated with that, including psychological costs. Patients have to stay connected and can’t move around. They can’t go home.” Because that means longer and more expensive hospital stays, any degree of freedom would be a welcome relief, Klimko said.

“These patients are already struggling because their seizures are at the point where they don’t have any quality of life,” Klimko added. “And it turns out a lot of people with intractable epilepsy have context dependency, so if they can’t move, they might not have as many seizures.”

The students are working with Nitin Tandon, a professor of neurosurgery at the McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and Caleb Kemere, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice. Tracy Volz, a Rice professor in the practice and director of the Engineering Communications Program, coached the team on its competition presentations.   

Their proof-of-concept system shows high-quality data collected from electrodes in the brains of rodents transmitted wirelessly to a computer. “We used mostly off-the-shelf components for this, but to get to the next, more evolved level, we would need more complex and tailor-made hardware solutions,” said Tandon, who is also the director of the epilepsy surgery program at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and an adjunct professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice.   

The team’s design is garnering international attention. In May, the students won the top prize in a student competition at the IEEE International Symposium on Circuits and Systems in Sapporo, Japan.

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