Engineering Better brains

May 22nd, 2021. By Audrey Tam '22

In a way, our brains are electrical circuits. By merging electrical and computer engineering with psychiatry, researchers working with brain-machine interfaces hope to gain a greater understanding of our treatment of mental disorders and mental health as a whole.

In a way, our brains are electrical circuits. Well, incredibly complex electrical circuits that wire our very thoughts and emotions. This implies that neural activity can be mapped, and possibly, even edited. One innovative application of technology seeks to do exactly that. And as a result, we could create less painful, faster-acting, and more precise treatments than anything available today. Sounds promising, but what would such technology entail?

We can gain some insight by taking a look at one particular tool, the brain-machine interface (BMI). BMIs provide a direct pathway to the brain, translating brain signals into actions and regulating emotional functions. The results are incredible; by focusing on the brain’s correlation to our actions, researchers have been able to restore lost motor function in people with paralysis. However, Assistant Professor Maryam Shanechi of the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering explores the possibilities of emphasizing the latter. Along with many others, Shanechi works to develop machines capable of regulating emotions.

Her team’s new BMIs aim to fine-tune abnormal neural activity patterns that underlie emotional dysfunction. “We are developing the first generation of BMIs that can restore emotional function in people with neuropsychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, and more,” she states. The potential for BMIs doesn’t stop there. With the ability to rewire our internal circuitry, BMIs give us valuable knowledge and understanding of our brains as a whole. BMIs would allow researchers to study how we start, stop, or change the trajectory of our emotions. They’re tools that help us discover more about mental health and gain a glimpse into the neural mechanisms that power our emotions.

Yet as always, there are some challenges and difficulties-- especially when it comes to processes as nuanced as recording mood and emotion. Identifying the root neurological cause of disorders, or “faulty circuitry”, is the first issue. Because someone’s mood can change easily over time, Shanechi expresses that simply observing behavior is not a reliable indicator. This also applies to brain activity, where mood states involve multiple distributed brain regions. She explains, “It’s not always clear how these regions coordinate their activity to represent mood”. But computers may be the solution. With machine learning and computation power, researchers might be able to solve and understand the whys and hows of our emotions.

But even if Shanechi and her team figure out how to decode moods and emotions from brain signals, the biggest problems remain unresolved. How will they use electrical stimulation to alter these brain signals? Will they be able to do so in a way that regulates the signals and the abnormal mood symptoms they represent? And what would a future with such technology look like? While these questions largely sit unanswered, Shenechi holds a firm grasp on the ethical and moral implications of her work. She reassures that this generation of BMI is designed solely as alternatives to medication and therapy for patients with very severe cases of depression and anxiety. Additionally, she highlights the importance of guidance, both from engineers and neuro-ethicists. “It’s important for all of us to approach our work, which we do for the good of everyone, from an ethical perspective,” Shanechi says.

Sources & Additional Information

Paul, Ben. “Is This the Future of Mental Health?” USC Viterbi | School of Engineering, 24 September 2019, Accessed 21 May 2021.

University, © Stanford, et al. “Precision Psychiatry: Engineering Therapies for Better Mental Health.” Stanford School of Engineering, 9 June 2016,

For more about the ethical implications of BMIs, here’s a great article--