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Leading Thoughts: Revolutionizing Brain Research

Jun 07, 2023   |   by Dean Alexis Abramson   |   Dartmouth Engineer

Dean Alexis Abramson speaks with Professor Hui Fang about his advances in application-driven technologies. Professor Fang is developing the next generation of neural probes to revolutionize how researchers study the human brain. We spoke about the potential directions of his work with nanomaterials and where he is finding collaborators in the Dartmouth community.

Dean Alexis Abramson (left) talks to Professor Hui Fang. (Photo by Rob Strong '04)

Can you tell us a little bit about your research with materials and structures, particularly nanomaterials?

FANG: I'm primarily working on neuro-electronics, especially implantable devices for the brain. Our fundamental innovation is in new material structures and devices. We create new structures where we can engineer and optimize their properties for certain device applications. An example is where we create so-called "transparent electronics." The need is to bridge this field of neuro-electronics—an electrical approach to the brain—with optical methodologies. They’re complementary. You can do electrical recording and optical imaging, and even optical stimulation, at the same time.

We created these nanostructures in our lab to enable that optical transparency. We start with the same kind of thin-film electrode materials that people use in flexible and soft neural interfacing devices. Usually, these are noble metals—gold, platinum—because you want them to be biocompatible. And then we need electrochemical materials on top of these noble metal interfaces to make that good electrode-electrolyte interface. It’s stacking a combination of different materials and films on top of each other to produce a functional device.

Can you talk a little bit about the applications?

FANG: The most important application is to create devices for neuroscience investigations. Just understanding how the brain works is arguably the number one scientific inquiry right now. We have a whole psychological and brain sciences department [PBS] on campus working on that goal, so we get to directly interface with them. They not only validate our tools, but the tools can also directly serve their research. That's super-rewarding.

The second application is contributing to the biomedical domain, both in studies as well as industry. There's certainly a lot of neurological diseases—epilepsy, Parkinson's—that are very hard problems to solve, to even understand the pathology. We're part of a whole group at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center [DHMC] that has started meeting monthly, and there's a group that is epilepsy focused—so certainly we are thinking about what we can contribute there, too. We're also engaging people who work on brain stimulation to address various diseases such as Parkinson's. We have a new project—developing a probe that will be able to monitor electrical signaling and the chemistry inside the brain—that could be very important for them.

"Understanding how the brain works is arguably the number one scientific inquiry right now."

Professor Hui Fang

You've made a lot of connections since you arrived in 2021. Can you talk about what brought you to Dartmouth?

FANG: Great people are what really excite me here—great colleagues and staff and students, both undergraduate students and graduate students and postdocs. Second is the prospect of collaboration. We talked about PBS and DHMC already, which are natural places for me to collaborate with. Thayer's spirit is "human-centered," and I would call our research human-centered too because we are working always on application-driven technology. There's fundamental science about neuro-electronics, but we always engage with end users, for example, in the neuroscience community, in the medical community. What eventually is going to make a big impact is something that is going to be useful for them.

You've taken on a leadership position to help us think about the design of Thayer's new micro-nanofabrication lab. Why do we need the space?

FANG: Currently, we have to leverage our neighbors and other resources; for example, we go to Boston or other places to do certain types of work, but it is not always ideal. The new space will enable us to have the full capability here and make us more productive and more capable. Existing faculty and student research will have a state-of-the-art facility, which is also important to attract new talent. Research is always evolving, there are always cutting-edge techniques, tools, and equipment. Having these here and being ready to meet the needs of the future are certainly important as we are growing the engineering school.

When you think about the training and education and research that will get done in the new facility—why is that important to society?

FANG: The current world, of course, is full of AI—but without physical infrastructure, there's no such thing. There's always competition between the soft side and the hard side. Right now, there's a lot of interest in the AI domain, but soon you will see that the hardware supporting these AIs is not going to be enough. It could be the performance is not high enough or the energy consumption is too great. So there's always this interest in the fundamental innovation on physical infrastructure, the computing device side, for example, to meet the needs of the ever-growing development of the soft domain, such as AI.

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