New research group boosts neuroengineering focus at IBEC

The Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) gains a world-renowned neuroscientist and psychologist with the move this week of ICREA professor Paul Verschure and his Synthetic Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems group (SPECS) from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra to the institute.

A multidisciplinary group founded in 2005, SPECS aims to find a unified theory of mind, brain and body by using synthetic methods, and to apply such a theory to the development of new cognitive technologies. It’s led by ICREA professor and ERC grantee Paul Verschure, who has an MA and PhD in psychology and who has pursued his research in the USA (San Diego Neurosciences Institute and the Salk Institute) and Europe (University of Amsterdam, University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology).

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The arrival of SPECS at IBEC spells the beginning of a new neuroengineering focus at the institute, and represents a solid drive towards making life science quantitative on any scale by taking full advantage of the unprecedented power of the convergence between nano, bio and ICT (information and communications technology).

SPECS’ activities are organized around three complementary dimensions: theory of mind and brain; biomimetic real-world artefacts; and brain repair and quality-of-life technologies. To study these dimensions, SPECS carries out research in such areas as computational neuroscience, artificial intelligence, neuroinformatics, robotics and hybrid systems, neuro-rehabilitation and psychophysiology interaction technology, virtual reality and tutoring systems.

Some examples of the group’s varied and fascinating projects include:
• the Distributed Adaptive Control theory of mind and brain;
• the CDAC project on the role of consciousness in adaptive behavior: a combined empirical, computational and robot-based approach, which is funded by an ERC Advanced Grant;
WYSIWYD (What You Say Is What You Did), which aims to enable robots to understand their own actions and those of humans, and to interpret and communicate these via a language-like communication channel;
BrainX3.com, which provides unprecedented access and control of whole brain models and the processing of brain data including from intracranially implanted patients;
• the silicon cerebellum, the world’s first bi-directional neuroprosthetic system;
• the Rehabilitation Gaming System (RGS) brain repair, recovery and rescue technology that assists in the restoration of function after lesions to the brain, which is currently used in 5 countries and 20 centers including reference hospitals in Catalunya such as Vall d’Hebron, La Esperanza and Parc Taulí;
intelligent tutoring systems that use geo-localization and virtual- and augmented reality to visualize Nazi concentration camps on-site, helping conserve, develop and preserve the memory of Europe’s cultural heritage.

Like IBEC, SPECS includes physicists, psychologists, biologists, engineers and computer scientists, and this shared multidisciplinary approach will boost their already strong track record in scientific cooperation, particularly in biomimetics and neurotechnology. SPECS will work closely with IBEC groups on various projects as it has in the past with Santiago Marco’s Signal Processing for Sensing Systems group with the EU-funded NeuroChem (Biologically Inspired Computation for Chemical Sensing) project a few years ago. It will also contribute greatly to IBEC’s clinical translation efforts with its strong collaborations with hospitals such as Parc Taulí, La Esperanza, Vall d’Hebron and Hospital del Mar to work on rehabilitation and recovery after stroke, epilepsy and other brain diseases. In addition, it will further strengthen the bioinformatics and neuroinformatics capabilities of IBEC. SPECS is also behind the multidisciplinary master program Cognitive Systems and Interactive Media, now hosted by UPF (10 editions).

SPECS is also very strong in educational and outreach activities with a special emphasis on “science performativity”, a concept developed by senior fellow Dr. Anna Mura, who focuses on creativity in artificial and biological systems. She is responsible for SPECS’s educational and dissemination program that include the Barcelona Cognition and Brain Technology summer school (10 editions); “Living Machines” the international conference on Biomimetic and Biohybrid Systems (6 editions); and neurorobotics and ICT-enhanced training courses for primary and secondary education validated at a number of schools in Barcelona. Together with SPECS’s technical director Pedro Omedas, Anna is responsible for the narrative content, dramaturgy and scenography of the eXperience Induction Machine, an immersive room equipped with sensors and effectors that has been constructed to conduct experiments in mixed-reality, and has produced a large number of public performances and exhibits. Among the most ambitious was “Ada: Intelligent space” for the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02, which was visited by 560,000 people, and the Multimodal Brain Orchestra that premiered at the closing ceremony of 2009’s EC Future and Emerging Technologies conference in Prague with the world’s first BCI chamber orchestra. Anna will work closely with IBEC’s own outreach programme to develop new activities for the many public talks, tours, fairs and other events which the institute organizes or participates in every year.

Soon after Paul’s start at IBEC, the SPECS group will be holding its regular Barcelona Cognition, Brain and Technology (BGBT) summer school at UPF. Co-organised with IBEC, the summer school will welcome Edvard Moser, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014, who will also contribute a public lecture in a special event to present the new directions of IBEC’s neuroengineering area on 4th September.

In a move that will consolidate and empower its ICT-related research, IBEC will open a second site at the UPC’s Campus Besos on av. Diagonal towards the end of this year. SPECS and other ICT-focused research groups will be located at this new campus, which will offer the space and equipment needed to develop this pillar of IBECs growth and to enhance its impact on society.

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