Brains Beyond Borders

Is any border more impervious than the one between human and machine, life and computer? In February, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., under the conference theme “Science Without Borders,” neuroscientists from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) sparked worldwide fascination with research that all but shatters the divide.


Click on image to see more pictures of the event on flickr.

The AAAS gathering is the largest general science conference in the world and attracts thousands of international scientists, engineers, policymakers, educators, and journalists to discuss breaking science news and pressing global problems.

swissnex San Francisco and EPFL co-organized two discussions at the meeting that addressed new technologies at the border of neuroscience that could change the lives of people living with disabilities: “Mind and Machine: The Next Step in Neuroprosthetics and Brain Computer Interfaces,” with José del R. Millán and others, and “From Artificial Limbs to Virtual Reality: How the Brain Represents the Body,” with professors Olaf Blanke, Miguel Nicolelis, and colleagues. swissnex San Francisco’s Director and Founder, Christian Simm, moderated both panels.

For the EPFL scientists, their presentations at AAAS garnered international media attention and brought them together with peers and with the public to discuss next generation brain-computer interface technologies and how digital avatars are being used to understand the science of self consciousness.

At a press briefing in front of science journalists from publications around the world, Jose Millán demonstrated a small robot powered by Ph.D. student Michelle Tavella’s brain activity, a technology that would allow people with limited mobility to interact with family members in a home, for example. Previous studies in Millán’s lab led to a thought-controlled wheelchair.

Olaf Blanke, in the same briefing, detailed his experiments inducing out-of-body experiences using virtual reality to determine how the brain represents the body. His research shows promise for pain treatments and may even one day allow for neuroprosthetics that feel more “real.”

Millán, Blanke, and Miguel Nicolelis also addressed policy-makers and scientists at the Swiss Ambassador’s Residence in Washington at an event organized by the Embassy of Switzerland in the US, ThinkSwiss, EPFL, and swissnex San Francisco.

The 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting shone a light on Switzerland’s leadership in the field of neuroscience and highlighted projects that truly go beyond borders of country, discipline, and the mind itself.

Hear Jose Millán and Olaf Blanke discuss how virtual reality could help researchers design better prosthetics, its implications for locked-in patients, and if we could one day transfer consciousnesses into robotic avatars. The two sat down with Science reporter Sara Reardon following a one-hour live chat with followers on February 20, 2011.