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A Beautiful, Complicated Circuit

| May 25, 2018

Gianluca Lazzi Sits at the Intersection of Electrical Engineering and Medicine.

 

Professor Gianluca Lazzi, Director of the new Institute for Technology and Medical Systems Innovation at USC. Photo Credit: USC Viterbi

When Gianluca Lazzi, Provost Professor of Ophthalmology and Electrical Engineering, started out as a young electrical engineer, he was working on safety assessments of electromagnetic fields. He was trying to find out how to prevent people from being overexposed to them and hurting themselves. Today, he actually exposes people to those same electromagnetic fields to heal them. But wait…this isn’t really a story about a professor changing his perspective on a technology and reinventing himself in the process.

You see, today, Lazzi, who holds a joint appointment at USC Viterbi and the Keck School of Medicine at USC, helps build eye implants that can bring back vision in people with retina degeneration. Photoreceptors are the cells in our eyes that turn light into electrical pulses. These pulses, in turn, stimulate neurons, which turn that into information for our brain. When these photoreceptors stop working, they perceive light but no longer send along the information. Quite literally, the lights are on, but nobody’s home. But wait…you’re mistaken again. This also isn’t a story about a professor who developed some new piece of technology that is going to change the world.

This is really a story about triggers. And how the right ones, at the right time, can change everything.

Of course, everything said about Lazzi above is true. He did change his perspective on his research and applied what he knew about electrical pulses to improving how we understand the brain. And he did create entirely new pieces of technology that use those electrical pulses in implants to bring back people’s vision.


“Our entire neural system can be interpreted as a beautiful, complicated circuit.” – Gianluca Lazzi


For our neural system to do anything, it needs a trigger – electrical stimulation. By activating the right cells through precise electrical stimulation, Lazzi’s implants can get those neurons in our eyes communicating with the brain again. The current itself is not actually healing the body, it’s simply the trigger that gets the many connected but different parts of the body to do what they’re supposed to together.

These tiny implants – only 5mm by 5mm in size – are not Lazzi’s alone but are actually a perfect example of how great things can be done when people from different fields are brought together. Let’s start at the beginning, before the implant is even built.

A ganglion cell network when electrically stimulated with a new electrode array to increase the number of stimulation locations in the retina.Work in collaboration B. Jones, U. of Utah. Photo Credit: Gianluca Lazzi

Our ability to capture and make sense of huge amounts of data has exploded in recent years. Through the use of computer technology and big data, scientists can now run the simulations necessary to understand the complexity of systems like the retina or even the brain. Once the computer scientist builds and runs the simulation, Lazzi can stimulate the cells in the pattern the simulation created to see if the results are worthwhile.

If that checks out, production begins. Material scientists, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers fabricate and put together the components to build a system that sends the correct signal, can be communicated with, and can be charged wirelessly – no one wants to plug their eyeball into an electrical socket to charge their implant. Then, a surgeon takes the device and physically implants it into the patient and tracks their results. All of these experts must be in close collaboration at all times to make sure the finished product does its job.

Finally, when everything else is finished, a writer is tasked with explaining it all.

When it comes to this intersection of engineering and medicine, electrical engineers are often perfectly positioned to be the triggers.

“Our entire neural system can be interpreted as a beautiful, complicated circuit,” says Lazzi. And no one understands circuits better than electrical engineers. Of course, it’s actually a two-way street. If medicine can learn more about the brain from engineers, so too can engineers learn more about circuitry from doctors. A perfect example is the age-old signal processing challenge of “noise.” Noise is unwanted or unknown information that shows up during the process of capturing a signal and interferes with the results. The more noise a test has, the less reliable it is.


When it comes to this intersection of engineering and medicine, electrical engineers are often perfectly positioned to be the triggers.


One challenge Lazzi is working on is the spontaneous firing of ganglion cells in blind people. “The cells don’t perceive light anymore, but they still randomly fire off from time to time, creating a kind of biological ‘noise.’” Says Lazzi. By understanding how noise works at the cellular level in the body, electrical engineers may come to new insights into how to build circuitry in the lab.

MODEL OF ELECTRICAL STIMULATION OF A SAMPLE OF HIPPOCAMPAL TISSUE. A DENTATE GYRUS LARGE-SCALE NEURAL NETWORK IS SHOWN, COLOR CODED BY THE MEMBRANE POTENTIAL, RESULTING FROM A STIMULUS APPLIED BY A PAIR OF ELECTRODES. WORK IN COLLABORATION WITH T.BERGER, USC. PHOTO CREDIT: GIANLUCA LAZZI

And the ramifications don’t stop there. In an attempt to create an eye implant that could receive data and charge wirelessly more effectively, Lazzi and his team began experimenting with liquid metal coils. They realized that this metal could be turned into extremely elastic fibers – a kind of stretchy conductor. These fibers are so small and flexible that they can actually be woven directly into clothing. This advancement can have a profound effect on the future of wearable technology like respiration sensors or heated clothing; meaning that no one here in Los Angeles will ever have to suffer through another winter again.

Last year, Lazzi was named director of the brand-new Institute for Technology and Medical Systems Innovation at USC. The institute, a joint effort between USC Viterbi and the Keck School of Medicine, is charged with furthering this sort of cooperation and collaboration between two of USC’s largest schools.  With his years of experience as a collaborator and his electrical engineering background, Lazzi is the perfect trigger for this new initiative.

 

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