Professor Richard Reilly’s Inaugural Lecture: ‘Replacement Parts for the Brain: Myths, Realities and Opportunities’

At the recent inaugural lecture by TCD’s Professor of Neural Engineering and Director of the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering, Professor Richard Reilly, described how neural engineering aims to understand, repair, replace, enhance and exploit the properties of brain function and neural systems.

Professor Reilly stated that the goal of the discipline of neural engineering is  “to solve neuroscience-related problems and to provide rehabilitative solutions for nervous system conditions”. Professor Reilly’s position at Trinity College, which is a joint position between the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering, highlights this new approach of quantitative engineering methods applied to neural systems. He described how engineers, neuroscientists and clinicians in the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering and the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience were working together to address specific problems associated with the complexity of the human brain.

Professor Reilly’s research in neural engineering is focused on deriving a quantitative understanding of precognitive and cognitive abilities, thus building a technical basis for a quantum leap in the fields of neurorehabilitation.  He stated that the recent success of neural engineering draws from advances in four specific areas; new knowledge and understanding from cognitive neuroscience, development of new biocompatible materials, advances in signal processing and mathematical modelling of nonlinear and nonstationary systems and the clinical need to address neurodegenerative and neurological illness.

“Brain disorders rank amongst the leading causes of diseases and disability. These include psychiatric, neurological and neurodegenerative illnesses. Yet, the knowledge of epidemiological and economic impact of brain disorders has been relatively little researched in Europe”, stated Professor Reilly.

During the lecture Professor Reilly discussed the “great interplay in neural engineering between basic and applied research. On the one hand the more we know how the brain functions, the better we can build neural prostheses.  But the converse is also true, that as we pursue higher performance and greater adaptation in neural prosthetic systems, we are also learning more of basic brain function”.  

Professor Reilly’s recent research has included modelling of neural system dynamics, specifically models that consider structural connectivity in the brain. He described the use of such models, generated from surface-recorded human Electroencephalography  (EEG), to help understand directionality of information flow in the brain and the operation of distributed cortical processing networks. Professor Reilly outlined two of his recent research studies that demonstrate the use of neurophysiologically interpretable system models applied to EEG data, which infer the nature of synaptic deficits underpinning diseases like schizophrenia.  He also described how the use of these EEG based models can be used to investigate the influence of pharmacological manipulations on neurological diseases.

During the lecture Professor Reilly also discussed recent studies undertaken by his group into multisensory integration. “Multisensory integration is an essential aspect of human function that is, as yet, poorly understood. Despite the fundamental role that sensory integration plays in performance and perception, how and when information from separate sensory modalities comes together in the human neocortex is an unsolved problem”, explained Professor Reilly. He described the use of non-invasive EEG methods in the study of the human multisensory integration research, driven by the increasing sophistication of stimulation, recording and analytical procedures. He demonstrated new methods, recently developed and published by his research group, that allow more detailed analysis of unisensory and multisensory processing.

Professor Reilly emphasised that one of the drivers for neural engineering research is ageing. He explained that investigation into understanding neurodegeneration in sensory and vestibular systems is the focus of many of his current research studies. He also mentioned “how neuroprostheses adapt to the ageing process, possibly from childhood to old age, is a research area which has yet to be addressed”. He briefly introduced new ongoing studies into Deep Brain Stimulation at the Dublin Neurological Institute and in the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. 

Professor Reilly closed his lecture emphasising the research potential in neural engineering and great opportunities for translational research with impact for psychiatric, neurological and neurodegenerative illnesses.

Biographical Notes:
Professor Reilly is a graduate of University College Dublin and an academic member of staff at Trinity College since 2008. Professor Reilly’s expertise is in neural engineering and the biomedical signal processing. Professor Reilly is Director of the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering since July 2008. The Trinity Centre for Bioengineering was established in 2002 to strengthen interdisciplinary interactions between Engineering and the Life Sciences.