Ictal Inhibitors won the top prize in the George R. Brown Engineering Design Showcase held April 13 at Rice University‚Äôs Tudor Fieldhouse. The Excellence in Engineering Award brought with it a prize of $5,000. The team developed an implantable neurostimulator that applies low-frequency stimulation to suppress seizures in people with epilepsy.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by unpredictable, recurrent seizures that can pose a risk to a patient‚Äôs safety. When undergoing a seizure, the brain is considered to be in an ‚Äúictal‚ÄĚ state.¬†Team Ictal Inhibitors‚Äė goal was to develop a neurostimulator that stimulates the brain to prevent the onset of seizures.
To create the system, the team first needed to develop a seizure-prediction algorithm. The students created a machine-learning algorithm that was ‚Äúvery good‚ÄĚ at predicting seizures: It predicted all seizures in their data set at least two minutes before their onset with 3.9 false positives per hour. The team then transferred this prediction algorithm to custom hardware that runs on patient data to predict seizures in real time.
‚ÄúWhat our system is trying to do is predict and prevent seizures in real time,‚ÄĚ said Sarah Hooper, a senior electrical engineering major. ‚ÄúThe first stage of our system is to record neural activity from the brain. That activity is then sent to our piece of hardware, which has the algorithm that produces a seizure prediction. Using the electrical signals that are produced in the brain, we can predict if a seizure is going to occur in the next five minutes or so.‚ÄĚ
Hooper said that if a seizure were about to occur, the hardware would then communicate back to electrodes implanted in the brain to apply electrical neurostimulation, which can actually stop the seizure before it occurs.
‚ÄúThree years ago, the project was basically an idea,‚ÄĚ said Erik Biegert, a senior who will graduate in May with an electrical engineering degree. ‚ÄúAbout one-third of the 3 million epilepsy patients in the United States don‚Äôt respond to anti-seizure medications. The only option left for those patients is to undergo surgery to remove the part of the brain that is the issue; we hope to replace that option with something a lot less invasive.‚ÄĚ
The project is part of Rice‚Äôs Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program, which aims to integrate graduate students, seniors and underclassmen. The VIP program began at Georgia Tech, and when it was funded by the Helmsley Trust, the program encouraged nationwide participation. That is how Rice became involved in the project and one of 25 universities in the VIP consortium, according to the team‚Äôs faculty adviser Behnaam Aazhang, who is the J.S. Abercrombie ¬†Professor of electrical and computer engineering.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the sponsor of the broader research project that underlies this VIP project. The NSF-funded project grew out of discussions between Aazhang and Dr. Nitin Tandon, a prominent neurosurgeon at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Tandon, a co-principal investigator of the NSF project, provides real intracranial patient seizure data for the project as well as technical advice and specifications.
While the six seniors who are members of¬†Team Ictal Inhibitors¬†will be moving on after commencement in May, Gary Woods, the team‚Äôs co-adviser and professor in the practice in computer technology, said the project will move forward. ‚ÄúA current junior will take the reins for next year and build a senior team to drive the project further along,‚ÄĚ he said.
The current team is looking to offer guidance to the next team. Randy Zhang, a senior electrical engineering major, said the team is preparing an academic paper to publish on the project and technology this summer. ‚ÄúIn terms of next steps, I think that what mostly needs to be done is work on how the device is actually going to interact with the input electrodes and how it would pass on its output to actual neurostimulators,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWhat we really focused on this year was to create the processing unit and all of the machine learning intelligence that can make this happen. On a higher level, the next steps could be to flesh out the design and move it onto a silicon chip so it can be created into an actual device.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThis is a work in progress, and we‚Äôre just scratching the surface,‚ÄĚ Aazhang said. ‚ÄúThis is at least three to five to seven years away from a product that could begin the clinical trials process, and then there is forming a business partnership, along with the whole FDA approvals process.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre really proud of the work we did this year,‚ÄĚ said Luke Van der Spoel, a senior electrical engineering major. ‚ÄúWe received really good feedback from the public and our mentors, but I think winning the competition was a big surprise for us with all of the other great projects. We really didn‚Äôt expect it.‚ÄĚ
The team also won first place and $500 at Rice‚Äôs Electrical and Computer Engineering Corporate Affiliates Day.
‚ÄúIctal Inhibitors has created one of the technically most sophisticated projects I‚Äôve mentored, and their performance as an integrated team of engineers is probably the best I‚Äôve seen,‚ÄĚ Woods said. ‚ÄúThe VIP team structure has allowed the team to perform together at the level of a seasoned team of professional engineers.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúHonestly, we had no idea,‚ÄĚ said team member Erik Biegert. ‚ÄúThis is the greatest thing that‚Äôs happened to us. We‚Äôve gotten good feedback all year about how well we‚Äôve been doing but this is better than we could have ever hoped.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs so many awesome teams here from so many different disciplines, and I know that it‚Äôs hard to compare those teams, so we‚Äôre really thankful and happy, and we‚Äôre excited to see this project move forward,‚ÄĚ added Sarah Hooper, who said students are already lined up to continue development in future years.
Other ECE winners:
Excellence in Freshman Engineering Design Award ($1,000): LRSCP.
Best Energy-Related Engineering Design Award ($500): Petro Patrol.
Best Medical Device Technology Award ($500): Dexterous Lab.
Best Gaming, Creative or Innovative Technology Award ($500): Hippopeutic.
The annual public event put on by the George R. Brown School of Engineering and the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen features senior capstone design and other projects by Rice undergraduates. Read about all the participating teams at http://oedk.rice.edu/showcase.