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Funded in the area of the ‘Future and Emerging Technologies’ programme, SICODE will open new perspectives for patients affected by paralysis and motor disabilities

Electron microscopic picture of the brain. Picture: Max Planck Institute for Biological CyberneticsGenoa, 29. March 2012. Today, the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa hosts the launch of the SICODE project - Towards new brain-machine interfaces: State-dependent Information CODing – which will be centered on the progress in the study of Brain Machine Interfaces, BMIs. The European consortium of research institutes, coordinated by IIT, will meet today to share and start the scientific programme, which will improve brain device engineering, deepening the knowledge regarding the functions made by the brain during body movement. In fact, today, BMIs are considered the only solutions for patients affected by motor disabilities, for example due to paralysis after spinal cord damage or stroke, to regain the possibility of moving.

Funded by the ‘Future and Emerging Technologies’ (FET) European Commission programme, the project sees Italy in the foreground, through the coordination by the dott. Stefano Panzeri, scientist of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) - Center for Neuroscience and Cognitive Systems, IIT@UniTn - and the participation of the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (SISSA). Other participats are the Department Physiology of Cognitive Processes headed by Nikos Logothetis at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tuebingen (Germany) and the Zurich University (Switzerland)

Brain Machine Interfaces are systems, which “read” the impulses coming from the brain and translate them into movements made by external objects, such as artificial robotic limbs. «The project – declares Dott. Stefano Panzeri of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia – will change the paradigm of Brain–Machine Interface engineering. Up to this day, the only process which was taken into account was the connection between the neurons underlying movement and the external object, such as an artificial limb, without taking into account the state variables which influence brain processes, such as the states of alertness, attention and motivation. The brain is a highly complex system and only by taking it into account as a whole, it is possible to build interfaces which can interpret correctly all the particularities of each signal it generates, giving the prosthesis the capability of executing exactly the desired movements».   

The project will involve an interdisciplinary team, which includes neuroscientists, mathematicians and engineers, to satisfy the demands and challenges of scientific research and planning of systems, which involve so many different specialties. «The research – explains Prof. Vincent Torre of SISSA – is divided in two different, but complementary, steps. First, we will try to understand the electrical activity of the nervous system in absence of stimuli that is we will study its spontaneous activity, which represents, in terms of computation, the background noise of the system. The second step will be to plan and build next-generation BMIs, capable of “reading” correctly the electric activity of the brain, with the aim of contributing to give back a real autonomy of movement to those people affected by serious motor disabilities».

Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia
The Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) is a private law foundation jointly established by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research and the Ministry of Economy and Finance, with the aim of promoting excellence in both basic and applied research and to facilitate the development of the national economy.  IIT’s total staff is comprised of approximately 900 individuals. The scientific area is represented by about 550 people, of which nearly 25% are foreigners coming from more than 35 countries worldwide and around 15% are “returning Italian brains.” Approximately 25% of the staff is composed of young graduate students.

IIT has produced approximately 65 patents and more than 2000 publications. The departments that collaborate in the headquarters based in Genoa (Italy) include departments of Robotics (“Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Sciences” and “Advanced Robotics”), the “iCub” and the “Pattern Analysis & Computer Vision” facilities, departments oriented to Life Sciences (“Neuroscience and Brain Technologies” and “Drug Discovery and Development”) and Nanobiotechnologies facilities (“Nanochemistry”, “Nanophysics” and “Nanostructures”). Since 2009 the scientific activity has been further supported by 10 research centers located throughout Italy (Turin, Milan, Trento, Parma, Rome, Pisa, Naples, Lecce) to develop the seven scientific platforms introduced with the 2009-2011 scientific plan, and at the focus of the new scientific plan 2012-2014: “Robotics”, “Neuroscience”, “Drug Discovery Development and Diagnostics”, “Energy”, “Environment Health and Safety”, “Smart Materials” and “Computation”.    

SISSA: The International School for Advanced Studies
The International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste is one of the most prestigious institutions for research and higher education in Europe. The School offers PhD courses in the fields of Physics, Mathematics and Neuroscience. The doctoral courses and research projects are coordinated by scientists of international prestige: senior scientists, researchers, and PhD students work together to conduct leading-edge research, with multidisciplinary approach.  

36% of enrolled students are foreigners and come from as many as 30 different countries (Ethiopia, Colombia, New Zealand, Iran, Vietnam, Kenya, Uzbekistan etc.). The presence of foreign lecturers and students, and scientific collaborations with renowned institutions all over the world makes SISSA an international environment. Moreover, thanks to daily contacts with the many high quality scientific institutions in Friuli Venezia Giulia, students at SISSA are already at the heart of an international scientific community. Founded in 1978, SISSA was the first Italian institute that promoted postgraduate courses aimed at obtaining a PhD degree.
Original Press Release

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Electron microscopic picture of the brain. Picture: Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics

Electron microscopic picture of the brain. Picture: Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics