Dr Naweed I Syed: Exploring A Strange New World

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Dr Naweed I Syed, is a Pakistani-born Canadian neuroscientist. He is the first scientist to connect brain cells to a silicon chip, the world’s first neuro-chip. He is a recipient of numerous awards for his service to the field of neuroscience both in Pakistan and internationally. Recipeint of Pakistan’s most prestigious award, Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and a recipient of Canada-150 medal by the Canadian Senate in 2017. Dr Naweed has received numerous other awards as well. We talked exclusively to him about his journey.

Q. You have made waves in the world of medicine, and neuroscience, with your invention of the first-ever brain chip. Could you tell us a bit about it?   

As is common knowledge that the brain is a complex system. The number of brain cells (neurons) exceed the stars in the milky-way. Fascinatingly the cells are too small – you could fit several thousands of those on the tip of a needle. What makes things even more daunting in attempts to understand brain functions is the number of connections between these tens of billion brain cells; they range in trillions. Therefore when one wants to understand how the brain controls all bodily and mental functions; which range from simple reflexes to complex motor patterns, learning, memory and cognitive functions, one must acquire access to these interactions and connections between the brain cells. This however has proven to be a challenge as it has not been possible for us to monitor the activities of more than a pair of neurons. I was perhaps the first and the last to have recorded from twelve brain cells concurrently but this was not enough to provide insights into the function of the human brain. It was therefore important to develop a technology that could allow us to monitor and directly record the activities of large networks of brain cells. We took this challenge on but had to overcome several hurdles. The most important being able to mimic the functions of brain cells on a semiconductor chip which would also be biocompatible and allow a two-way communication between the brain cells and the semiconductor chip. After considerable back and forth we became the first team to create a chip that could talk to brain cells directly on a one-on-one basis and could also record their activities over an extended time period non-invasively. This was the first time that a semiconductor, electronic device was fully integrated and paired with the brain tissue. This technology now gives us insights that actually it is possible to pair brain cells and their function with an electronic device whereby a capacitor could be used to stimulate the brain cells non-invasively, in a manner that another brain would do, and then to record activity of the excited neurone using a transistor built onto the chip.

Q. How do you see this device being used in the future?

Honestly, this is the holy grail of neuroscience which not only allows us to crack the code of various modes of communications between the brain cells. In so doing, one would be able to find out which parts of the brain are active or functioning during any given behaviour so appropriate treatments or therapies could be designed accordingly. It is also important to recognise that if any part of our brain is damaged either due to trauma, injury, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s or epilepsy, the natural replacement of that damaged tissue does not take place. This leaves the individual deprived of a particular function. Even the stem cell transplantation or therapy does not work in the brain tissue. We strongly believe that using a brain-chip or brain-machine conduit would make it possible to regain that lost brain function by allowing the interface to take over the lost or the damaged tissue function. In instances where the brain may still be intact but an individual loses an arm or a leg, such devices could be paired directly with the brain tissue. And since these would be designed and devised by us, they could then serve as a remote control which could be paired with a prosthetic limb thus serving as an interface whereby one will be able to use one’s own brain through the chip interface, to control an artificial limb or a prosthesis. From understanding brain function, to repair to bionic prosthesis – the possibilities are endless.

Q. How do you see this being accessible to the common man, especially in Pakistan?  

You know that tremendous resources, efforts and insights are required to arrive at such a stage and obviously this process has been time-consuming and costly. However, as technology becomes more accessible, it makes it more affordable. For researchers like us, cost is not an issue because to see a smile on someone’s face, to have a child walk with a prosthetic limb is worth all the troubles that one takes. Even though we have shown that it is indeed possible to integrate brain function with semiconductor devices it will, however, take quite some time to have these chips be implanted in a human brain. There are many logistical and technical road blocks ranging from a need to have an expert to plant them in the brain to scarring of the brain tissue or detachment of the chip, the heat generated by the chip and how that might affect the brain tissue. It will be imperative to note whether activating one part of the brain alters the functions of other parts of the brain, and the list goes on. So at this stage, the cost may be high and the logistical underpinnings complex and complicated but the approach nevertheless gives us the confidence that it can be done.  We are working on a mega project to have chip design and fabrication facilities in Pakistan (we do not have any at the moment) be installed and once that becomes a reality, it will be a lot cheaper and feasible to have the cost be brought to a nominal level. Currently, a single chip costs us $300 but once its mass production starts locally, it will come down to $ 30/chip. On top of this you would need to cover the costs of an expert to plant the chip and the opration cost and follow-ups.

Q. Could you tell us a bit about the testing process when you first invented it?

Our first chip, which was a proof of concept, was developed in 2004. The paper was published in a scientific journal, the study was highlighted in the Time Magazine, Discovery Channel, and hundreds of other media outlets. Since then we have kept improving the technology using various animal models ranging from snails to rats. Because the brain cells in all animal forms function the same way, we first used the snail brain cells because of their large size and greater currents and this allowed us to pair a chip with them. We then kept improving the sensitivity of the chip while reducing its size to allow pairing with rat brain cells. We have since developed many other sophisticated chips all of which enable us to monitor the ion channels activities at a resolution – never achieved before. Thus such things are an iterative process the principle of which is to have capacitors to activate brain cells and a set of transistors to record their activities. The chip is biocompatible to an extent that brain cells can be grown directly on the chip and they behave as if they are growing within the normal biological brain.

Q. Do you see it being used to treat common illnesses in the future?

As pointed out earlier, the possibilities are endless ranging from treating epilepsy, stroke and injury-related damage, ADHD, Autism, brain and mental health ailments to brain control prostheses.

Q. What would you say is the key difference between working in Pakistan and Canada as a neuroscientist?

I think that the major difference is in the mindset and the availability of resources, funding investments, infrastructure and access to highly qualified trainees who think big and independently. There is no shortage of talent in Pakistan but the trainees are not allowed or groomed to think independently. The quality of research and the researchers is modest at best and the emphasis is more on publishing poor quality papers which are often irreproducible. I think that the trainees in Canada are allowed to work independently to advance the field and not the careers of their supervisors.

Q. What potential risks were you concerned about during the testing process?

Although we are not yet there, one of the major questions that gets asked is: what if this technology gets into the wrong hands? Would governments or the holders of this technology exploit it to control the brains and minds of other people? These are all absurd assumptions as this will likely not happen in my lifetime. Having said that, it does remain a possibility that minds can be tapped into using these technologies but for this to happen the recipient would need to allow the perpetrator access to their brain tissue. At this stage though, I am not concerned that such a technology could fall into wrong hands.

This interview originally appeared at Bol News and has been reproduced by Author’s permission. 

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