HOUSTON — A team of Rice engineering students recently took top honors and a $5,000 prize for its development of a potential digital cure for epilepsy.
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by unpredictable, recurrent seizures that can pose a risk to a patient’s safety. When undergoing a seizure, the brain is considered to be in an “ictal” state. Team Ictal Inhibitors‘ 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 “very good” 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.
“What our system is trying to do is predict and prevent seizures in real time,” said Sarah Hooper, a senior electrical engineering major. “The 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.”
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.
“Three years ago, the project was basically an idea,” said Erik Biegert, a senior who will graduate in May with an electrical engineering degree. “About one-third of the 3 million epilepsy patients in the United States don’t 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.”
The project is part of Rice’s 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’s 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’s co-adviser and professor in the practice in computer technology, said the project will move forward. “A current junior will take the reins for next year and build a senior team to drive the project further along,” 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. “In 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,” he said. “What 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.”
“This is a work in progress, and we’re just scratching the surface,” Aazhang said. “This 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.”
“We’re really proud of the work we did this year,” said Luke Van der Spoel, a senior electrical engineering major. “We 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’t expect it.”
The team also won first place and $500 at Rice’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Corporate Affiliates Day.
“Ictal Inhibitors has created one of the technically most sophisticated projects I’ve mentored, and their performance as an integrated team of engineers is probably the best I’ve seen,” Woods said. “The VIP team structure has allowed the team to perform together at the level of a seasoned team of professional engineers.”