University of Calgary

Naweed Syed

Imagine a time when a child who loses a leg in an accident or to disease could be outfitted with the most advanced prosthetic in the world. It would be controlled by a microchip that turns her brain impulses into radio signals to control her bionic limb as if it were her natural leg. Or imagine a special undershirt that is capable of monitoring an elderly man’s vital signs, reminds him to take his medication and can call for help if he falls or suffers a stroke. Now imagine that all the knowledge, technology and procedures involved in these medical advances were developed by University of Calgary researchers, with their worldwide application directly benefiting the Canadian economy.
This work is part of the University of Calgary's commitment to expanding its internationally-recognized research in the rapidly growing field of biomedical engineering. More than 100 researchers from the Schulich School of Engineering and the faculties of science, medicine, veterinary medicine and kinesiology are involved in inventing, developing and commercializing technologies in the health care sector that will help prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses. The U of C is also creating a new nationally focused innovative centre for biomedical engineering as a catalyst for Alberta’s expanding biomedical economy.
Dr. Naweed Syed was the first to connect brain cells to a silicon chip, a major step in controlling artificial limbs, correcting memory loss, impaired vision and more. Now, he’s leading the U of C biomedical engineering strategy.
Dr. Naweed Syed’s “brain on a chip” discovery is a major step towards integrating computers with human brains to help people control artificial limbs, monitor people’s vital signs, correct memory loss or impaired vision. “We want to harness the innovation taking place here by putting people from different disciplines in a place where they will bump into each other on a daily basis and work together on novel ideas,” Syed says.

Building on a Vision

This vision is starting to unfold as U of C scientists, engineers, physicians, kinesiologists and other experts increasingly join forces to tackle medical problems from many angles. This interdisciplinary approach is already paying off with world-leading developments in areas such as neurosurgery, joint repair and therapy, and cardio-respiratory care. It’s just the beginning, however, as the university positions itself as a hotspot in the emerging field of biomedical engineering. “We cannot miss this opportunity,” says Dr. Naweed Syed, head of cell biology and anatomy in the Faculty of Medicine, research director of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute and advisor to the Vice-President (Research) on biomedical engineering.

Brain on a chip
Syed and colleagues made headlines around the world in 2004 when they were the first to connect brain cells to a silicon chip and show that living cells could communicate directly with an electronic device. The so-called “brain on a chip” discovery is considered a major step towards successfully integrating computers with the human brain to potentially control artificial limbs, correct memory loss or impaired vision, and treat a wide range of neurological conditions. Such an achievement took the combined efforts of biologists, neurologists, engineers and computer scientists from around the world, all working together on a common problem.

What gets Syed fired up these days is the prospect of similar projects being conducted by teams of U of C researchers. “If we can develop something like this locally, there could be enormous benefits to Canada, Alberta and the university,” he says. To that end, Syed is leading the development of a biomedical engineering enhancement strategy at the U of C, centered around the establishment of a nationally focused innovative centre for biomedical engineering on the university campus. The goal of such a facility is to encourage co-operation and cross-pollination of ideas between researchers who might not otherwise be connected by their work.

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