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‘Science Is a Team Sport’: Brown University’s Dr. David Borton at JWU

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2/3/17 | “Science is a team sport.” Dr. David Borton’s message to an auditorium full of JWU Arts & Sciences students — many of them studying Biology — focused on science’s power to harness radical ideas to improve human lives.

Borton, an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at Brown University, has been working with an international team of scientists — including collaborators in Switzerland, Germany and France — to develop wireless technology that has successfully restored function to the temporarily paralyzed limbs of rhesus monkeys.

“Neurotechnology is coming of age,” he said. “In my journey I’ve come to realize that it’s the key to help us understand the mind.”

He shared a schematic of the brain’s vasculature and white matter (tract) systems: “The brain is vastly complex — there are roughly 86 billion neurons and 100 x 1012 neural connections. In spinal cord injuries, the connections to the brain are severed, and it’s hard to figure out how to patch them together.”

Borton’s current research was sparked by the idea of bypassing the break entirely to stimulate below the rupture.

To do so, the team first had to decode the phases of locomotion, from the neurons firing to the time it took for that signal to translate into action (muscle flexion or extension).

Borton’s rhesus subjects were filmed on a treadmill; data of their continuous locomotion was then mapped onto a computational model that included 3D and waveform outputs. “You have to be careful when you stimulate. It has to be phasic — that is, aligned to the natural timing of the reflexes.”

Currently, the team is working toward the goal of developing an implantable device — “a next-gen system that can sense AND stimulate in one device” — that could be ready for human trials.

“When I started my PhD, these concepts seemed very sci-fi — they’re much less so now,” he noted. “Our work today is truly collaborative, involving clinicians, philosophers, engineers, etc. While it may have been a single scientist winning the Nobel Prize years ago, I believe going forward it's going to be team science.”

After Borton’s talk, Assistant Dean Laura Galligan introduced Courtney Cameron and Summer Britton, the two Biology students that received a Distinguished Visiting Professor Scholarship (DVP) in Borton’s name. “You possess the characteristics of good scientists: Academic excellence (a given). A thick skin (because science involves a great deal of trial and error). And childlike curiosity (with each answer generating another question).” As Dr. Borton congratulated with each student, Galligan concluded: “We know you will go a long way.”

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PHOTOS BY MIKE COHEA

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Topics: Biology