"Grand Challenge in Neural Engineering: Can We Forward Engineer a Living Brain?"

Dr. Bruce C. Wheeler
University of Florida, USA


One of the Grand Challenges identified by the National Science Foundation is the Reverse Engineering of the Brain – e.g. taking it apart of learning it how it works so that the principles can be used in many fields of science and engineering. Here I propose that a more exacting challenge is Forward Engineering of the Brain – the design and construction of ever more complex living neural circuits that emulate brain function. While certainly a wild idea, is closer to reality than is reasonable to expect, thanks to applications of both engineering and applied biology. The metaphor works both ways: applications of more traditional engineering technologies – signal processing, electronics, microlithography, materials science – make possible the controlled growth, recording, and stimulation of nerve cells. In turn the goal is to design, construct, test, and utilize – in short to engineer – a working biological construct. In this lecture examples illustrate the component technologies that have been utilized in this pursuit, as well as examples illustrating how the approaching the problem as an engineer leads to the asking new questions.


Bruce Wheeler is Professor and Interim Chair of the Pruitt Family Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida. From 1980 to 2008 he was with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, most recently as Professor and Founding and Interim Department Head of the Bioengineering Department. He was also a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Beckman Institute, a former Associate Head of ECE, and a former chair of the Neuroscience Program.

He is the incoming President Elect of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society and has been the Editor in Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering since 2007. He is a Fellow of the IEEE and AIMBE.

He received the B.S. degree from MIT and later the M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Cornell. Prof. Wheeler’s research interests lie in the application of electrical engineering methodologies, signal processing and microfabrication, to the study of the nervous system, including the microlithographic control of the patterns of growth of neurons in vitro so as to permit stimulation and recording with microelectrode arrays. Hopefully this work will lead to better understanding of the behavior of small populations of neurons and lead to better insights into the functioning of the brain.)