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uni'alumni 2013_ENG

The computer scientist Wolfram Burgard serves as director of the new Cluster of Excellence. Photos: Grah What the scientists from BrainLinks-Brain- Tools plan to do sounds like something straight out of science fiction: They want to use computers to upload signals from the brain activity of a paralyzed person, decode them, and pass them on directly to machines, for instance to a robot arm. They want to develop brain implants for people suffering from certain diseases that will monitor their nerve cells and step in when their activity gets out of control. The necessary electrical ener- gy will not come from batteries but directly from the patients – from their body heat or blood sugar. Helping People to Live More Independently The goals of the University of Freiburg’s new Cluster of Excellence might sound like pipe dreams, but indeed they are feasible solutions to real problems in the present. Some diseases of the brain, such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s, cannot be treated adequately with drugs, but it is possible to ease the symptoms with targeted, situation-specific electrical stimuli. Another topic the cluster is focusing on is intelligent assistance systems designed to help people with muscular dystrophy or severe paralyses live more independently. One of the biggest challenges here is reliably interpret- ing control signals from the patient’s brain activity over an extended period of time. A second challenge is programming a robot to plan and execute independent motions, pick up objects, or open doors in response to these commands. Bringing Scientists Together The cluster will receive 28 million euros in funding from the Excellence Initiative of the Federal and State Governments over the next five years. “It is very important for us to be able to bring scientists from many different disciplines together to work in one place,” says Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard, head of the Autonomous Intelligent Systems Research Laboratory at the Department of Computer Science and director of BrainLinks-Brain- Tools. “With their various emphases, the scien- tists are making an important contribution to our vision of establishing a new neurotechnology.“ We shouldn’t expect to see any finished products on the market anytime soon. Many of the questions the cluster is concentrating on are simply too fundamental in nature. However, certain subcomponents should be ready for initial clinical studies within the coming years. Gunnar Grah The Cluster of Excellence BrainLinks-BrainTools of the University of Freiburg started work in November 2012 Interfaces to the Brain A NEW NEUROTECHNOLOGY Scientists at BrainLinks-BrainTools want to develop electrode arrays that can be implanted in the brains of epilepsy patients to detect signals announcing an epileptic seizure. The goal is to prevent the seizure through electrical stimulation of the nerve cells. Photo: IMTEK/Müller 6