Brain Awareness Week 2018

All this week we will be posting interviews with members of the Wyss Center as well as tweeting brain facts and info

From brain-controlled communication to reducing tinnitus through thought, this series of interviews with Wyss Center staff will put cutting edge neurotechnology in the spotlight. Find out how neurotechnology can be used to help people with nervous system disorders and what big challenges must be overcome before these new technologies can be rolled out to help people everywhere. 

14 March 2018 – Our second interview…

… is with Sébastien Pernecker, Embedded Software Engineer

Could you briefly describe your role at the Wyss Center?

The goal of my job is to define, write and test software that will be embedded in medical devices in accordance with medical device standards.

I work mainly on two Wyss Center projects. The first, called Neurocomm, aims to restore movement in paralysed people. It involves a microelectrode array implanted in the brain that can read the person’s intention to move. The goal is to allow people to regain movement but also their independence.

The second, called Epios, involves electrodes placed on the surface of the skull to monitor brain activity for epilepsy patients.

I am working to solve the challenge of how we can extract the brain signals from these implanted devices and how we can efficiently process the data on a small portable device while reducing power consumption.

What led you to work in engineering and neurotech. Was it a childhood ambition?

I always wanted to be a scientist, but when I had to choose my career I couldn’t decide whether to become a doctor or an engineer. In the end I chose to become an engineer but one that works in the field of medicine. After finishing my engineering degree at EPFL I was tempted to work in the renewable energy industry, but I finally decided to settle on medical engineering.

Before joining the Wyss Center, I was working in a more general industrial setting, but my personal ambitions and interest in medicine led me to focus more on medical device development. I wanted to work in an area that would have a positive impact on society and that would benefit peoples’ lives. I wanted to do something that would help people.

What do you enjoy most about working in a neurotechnology organization?

I appreciate the different backgrounds at the Wyss Center – there are people from academia and from industry. This results in interactions and a way of working that you don’t find in industry. I also like the level of communication between people here. People here really take the time to understand the challenges that they are addressing. We don’t go straight to development. We focus a lot on what the final user really needs. I have learned a lot about what paralysed people actually want from a device. I had previously thought that paralysed people want to walk. I realise now that this is one goal, but it is not necessarily the major goal for many of them. In fact, people would like to be able to wash themselves and to regain some dignity.

Where do you think we’ll see the biggest advances in neurotechnology in the next ten years?

I think electronic components will become ever smaller and this will allow us to incorporate more electronics inside the body. I also think that the field of artificial intelligence (AI) can give us valuable insights in how to process data, identify trends and analyse brain signals. I believe AI could really help us in our goal to restore movement and solve other nervous system disorders.

12 March 2018 – Our first interview…

…is with Stéphanie Trznadel, Field Clinical Research Associate at the Wyss Center.

Could you briefly describe your role at the Wyss Center?

I act as the interface between the research participants and the researchers. I accompany participants from the beginning to the end of a study. I work with clinicians at local hospitals to identify suitable participants. I meet with them – if they cannot move, I go to their homes – and I present the research to them and talk them through what it would mean for them to take part in a study.

Do you find that people are open and interested in helping with research or are they nervous?

They are not nervous at all, they are generally really, really eager to help. Even if the study is not going to benefit them directly, they are eager to help so that the study can benefit other people.

For example, we are developing a communication device for locked in people and for this study we are recruiting people with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), but who may not be paralysed themselves. During the recruitment for this, I have found people to be happy to help, not for themselves, but for other people who might need the device more than them.

Had you worked with patients before?

No, this is my first time.

How are you finding it? Can it be emotionally difficult at times?

On the contrary actually. It’s very exciting because these people are enthusiastic and motivated. They are more excited than a healthy volunteer because they are helping people and they might be helping themselves – their future selves. They are really interested in everything we are doing at the Wyss Center. It is nice to see people with stars in their eyes when you tell them what you are doing. The more study participants I meet, the more I realise that we need each other. They need us, and we need them.

What led you to work in neuroscience and neurotech. Was it a childhood ambition?

I thought psychology was really interesting, so I studied this for my first degree. Towards the end of the degree I took a course in neuropsychology, and became interested in the biological side of behaviour. I then did another bachelor’s degree in behavioural biology which involved learning a lot about animal behaviour. After that I decided I wanted to go back to studying humans, so I did master’s degree in neuroscience in Geneva.

This led me to work as a researcher for four years at CISA, the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, where I was part of an interdisciplinary team of psychologists and philosophers as well as neuroscience researchers. After a while I decided that I wanted to work in applied research, to work in a place where research concepts could be used to help people. This is how I came to work at the Wyss Center.

Where do you think we’ll see the biggest advances in neurotechnology in the next ten years?

I think that brain computer interfaces (BCIs) are evolving really quickly and there are more and more applications for them. Whatever the application is, I see a way for a BCI to be involved, from improving the way the home works to solving nervous system disorders. Think about how the world is changing, everything is getting more technological, more automatic, more connected. I think that BCIs are going to be very important in this revolution.

Brain Awareness Week (BAW) is the global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. Every March, BAW unites the efforts of partner organizations worldwide in a celebration of the brain for people of all ages.

Find out more about Brain Awareness Week here: