Undergraduate Neural Engineering Lab

Achievement date: 
2016
Outcome/accomplishment: 

The Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) headquartered at the University of Washington (UW), has created a unique lab experience available to undergraduate students. The Neural Computation and Engineering Laboratory is a new course first offered in Spring 2016 at UW, and it is taught by Dr. Lise Johnson, University Education Manager at the CSNE. The lab is a full-quarter course that counts toward curriculum requirements within the new UW Undergraduate Minor in Neural Computation and Engineering, which is currently under development.

Impact/benefits: 

Neural engineering is a cutting-edge field that draws students from diverse backgrounds such as bioengineering, biochemistry, electrical engineering, and applied math. One of the challenges inherent in the cross-disciplinary nature of this new and emerging academic domain is providing necessary education and training in the biological sciences to students from computational backgrounds such as engineering or applied math.

The lab is open to students who haven't taken many biology prerequisites, and it is unique in being targeted towards students who have a computational background. With this in mind, the lab emphasizes an understanding of neural data from a computational perspective. The lab is also noteworthy, even for a neurobiology lab, because the recording instruments students will be using are very sophisticated pieces of actual electrophysiology equipment. In this lab, students perform biological preparations that most undergraduates don't have an opportunity to do.

Explanation/Background: 

In the lab, students learn how to record from brain cells (neurons), and how to interpret what it is that they are recording. This is a "wet" laboratory experience, where students learn by experimenting with invertebrate preparations. Lab experiments include:

  • Performing an extracellular recording from a cockroach leg. In an extracellular neural recording, electrodes are placed up against (outside) neural cells in biological tissue and nerve action potentials (spikes) are recorded from a number of different cells at the same time.
  • Studying equivalent RC (Resistance-Capacitance) circuits. Here, students learn how to simulate the resistance-capacitance of a neural cell. In this section of the lab, students practice using delicate intracellular amplifier equipment and gain a better understanding of how to represent properties of a neuron using electrical components.
  • Performing an intracellular recording from a leech ganglion. This involves recording nerve spikes from inside a cell—something undergraduate science and engineering students often read about, but rarely get to do.
  • Performing extracellular recordings from fly photoreceptor cells. Here the students are recording from neurons that detect light within the fly's eye.
  • Studying human auditory psychophysics. In this section of the lab, students will put on headphones and play sounds to themselves, recording their responses to try and piece together how their own auditory system represents incoming auditory stimuli.

Because most of the students are coming from engineering backgrounds, many have never had the opportunity to actually record from neurons. As Dr. Johnson notes, "We don't assume that the students are coming in with a lot of neuroscience background. I try to tell them about the underlying physiology, and then connect that (understanding) to computational and engineering techniques."

This lab experience is important for collaborations the students will likely be involved with in their future careers. Students who study and later work in the field of neural engineering will oftentimes be partnering with a collaborator who will be collecting data, or they will be simulating or modeling biological data themselves. If students aspire to be computational neuroscientists, this lab will help provide a solid understanding of both neural data and its biological background. For those who are planning to become neural engineers, the lab will help them better understand the biological background behind neural information, as well as understand how research equipment interfaces with biology. In most cases, more background in the biology that underlies neural computation and engineering is very helpful, and it can give students an edge later on in whatever their chosen scientific profession may be.