July 12, 2019

New neurotechnology training program takes students to the extremes and invites industry into the classroom

NSERC investment will catapult the growth of neurotechnology innovation in Calgary
Marc Poulin and Richard Wilson received an NSERC CREATE grant for a neurotechnology training program
Marc Poulin and Richard Wilson received an NSERC CREATE grant for a neurotechnology training program Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

From sleep apnea to stroke, spinal cord injury or the impact of working in extreme environments, our understanding of brain function and performance is making rapid advancements thanks in part to the large and growing neurotechnology industry. Novel tools such as advanced sub-cellular imaging, machine learning, drug discoveries and new brain-machine interfaces allow us to measure, monitor and manipulate brain-regulated physiological functions like never before.

BRAIN CREATE, a new neurotechnology training program for undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral scholars at the University of Calgary, will harness and build on those advances. The program is working in collaboration with industry to create jobs, grow the neurotechnology sector and facilitate innovative research.

The training program has just been awarded $1.65 million in funding from the federal government through NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Training Experience Program (CREATE). Along with several faculty collaborators across a broad array of disciplines, the project will be led by Dr. Richard Wilson, PhD, and Dr. Marc Poulin, PhD, professors in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and members of the school’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI).

“This important training program builds on the University of Calgary’s critical mass of multidisciplinary expertise and leverages our investments in brain and mental health,” says Dr. André Buret, interim vice-president (research). “With outreach to industry and the community, these students will emerge from this intensive and individualized training highly qualified to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding and economically important neurotechnology sector. This program will provide our graduate students access to a unique career development program.”

An individualized program for a highly diverse cohort

The program will accommodate close to 100 undergraduate and graduate students, with at least 100 more benefiting from enhanced REALISE workshops, created by the HBI, and other ancillary opportunities including community outreach, mentorship and modular courses.

Close to 100 students will receive hands-on training and work closely with industry.

Close to 100 students will receive hands-on training and work closely with industry.

Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

The highly diverse neurotechnology sector includes advanced imaging, pharmacological interventions and diagnostics, as well as implantable technologies such as pacemakers, wearables from smart watches to activity monitors, and novel biometrics like facial or voice recognition. To reflect that diversity, trainees will be recruited from a wide variety of backgrounds. Particular effort will be made to recruit from two typically underrepresented demographics: women returning from maternity leave and Indigenous students.

“We envisage that each trainee will have a unique journey through the program,” says Wilson. “They will build on their individual experiences reflecting their diverse backgrounds, interests and goals in the neurotechnologies ecosystem.” 

Bringing industry into the classroom

BRAIN CREATE will work in close collaboration with industry: bringing non-academic partners into the classroom to present real-world problems to solve, and embedding students with industry to improve their understanding and qualification for jobs.

“A major objective of BRAIN CREATE is to drive innovation and commercialization,” Wilson says. “We’re really thinking of translation, that’s very much part of our DNA already. Our industry partners have an expressed need for brain-centric innovation, and our hope is for this collaboration to accelerate innovation and commercialization while instilling trainees with an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Learning about the everyday by researching at the extremes

A further key element in the program are the capstone projects that will take trainees to the extremes — biological and geographical. Work in the high Arctic, at high altitude, and observing the limits of brain function will provide trainees with insights about parallel conditions in less extreme environments. For instance, low oxygen environments at high altitude mimic what someone doing shiftwork might experience, or living with COPD or sleep apnea.

The training program has just been awarded $1.65 million in funding from the federal government.

The training program has just been awarded $1.65 million in funding from the federal government.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“This training builds on our existing partnership with industry and also within the university, such as the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, the Libin Cardiovascular Institute, and the Arctic Institute of North America,” Poulin says. “Working with them studying the extreme cold or extremely physically demanding conditions will inform our understanding of how the brain adapts in those conditions.”

The training will also extend Poulin’s ongoing work with the ALMA Observatory in Chile, and collaborations with Canadian companies that operate mines at high altitude in South America.

“They have workers at extreme altitudes which really pushes them to the extreme of human functioning, and we’re trying to better understand how they adapt to that over time,” Poulin says. “In particular we’re taking some of our approaches to study sleep to these remote settings — if we can better understand their underlying sleep health we can start intervening with different approaches to optimization.

“Trainees will gain more than just the knowledge and expertise in these projects, including mentorship, communication and life skills, facilitating entry into the workforce,” Poulin adds.

“Marc and I are very keen to take this and run with it,” Wilson says. “We’d really like to encourage the community to get involved, particularly businesses in Calgary. We would like to see how we can enhance what they’re doing using brain technologies, and work with them collaboratively. Working together, we foresee that could potentially have many more students and extend the timeframe for the project.”

Visit the newly launched BRAIN CREATE website for more information about neurotechnology training program. BRAIN CREATE is also funded in part by the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta.

Marc Poulin is a professor in the departments of physiology and pharmacology, and clinical neurosciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and in the Faculty of Kinesiology. He is a member of the CSM’s Hotchkiss Brain InstituteLibin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta and O’Brien Institute for Public Health. Poulin is the Brenda Strafford Foundation Chair in Alzheimer Research.

Richard Wilson is a professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university and positions researchers to unlock new discoveries and treatments for brain health in our community.