Neural disorders represent one of nation’s largest health-care problems, affecting more than 70 million Americans. Neural disorders require more hospitalizations today than any other disease group, and cost approximately $700 billion annually to treat. (Source: Society for Neuroscience, Brain Facts). But more importantly, these illnesses exact a profound toll on the quality of life for all affected by neural disorders. Developing effective treatments for neural disorders will provide substantial benefits to health care as well as the human condition.

Neural engineering involves the development of devices and techniques to treat nervous system disorders and to explicate the basic mechanisms of neural function and dysfunction. Research at the University of Utah includes neural tissue engineering, codes and computation by the brain, neural imaging, neuroprosthetic devices, brain-computer interfaces and biocentric robotics.

As an example of electrical neural prosthetic devices, the Utah Electrode Array (UEA), originally invented by R. Normann of Biomedical Engineering, contains 100 individual electrodes; each of which can very selectively stimulate and record from neural tissue. This system is currently being enhanced wireless real-time brain-computer interfacing. Potential clinical applications currently under investigation include: reanimation of paralyzed limbs; providing control of, and sensory feedback from, an advanced neuroprosthetic arm; vision restoration; treatment of epilepsy; and pain mitigation, among others.

There are also advances in biointeractive materials as applied to neural interfaces. Ongoing research is not only developing new techniques to assay the biocompatibility of existing neural interfaces, but is also investigating means by which to enhance the viability and function of interfaces in the biological environment. Also, in conjunction with research in the areas of Bioelectricity, Computational Medicine and Biomedical Engineering, and Mathematical Medicine and Physiology; research in Neural Engineering is investigating the basic codes underlying information transfer and storage in the nervous system. And finally, in combination with research in Medical Imaging and Visualization and in Computational Medicine, research is developing new imaging capabilities in order to visualize structure-function relationships in normal and abnormal nervous system, and to allow more accurate therapeutic interventions.