After his PhD in what he calls “hardcore analogue microelectronics”, rising star Dante Muratore knew he wanted to continue his career working on systems that are closer to an actual application. A postdoc position at Stanford University, in which he worked on the electronics for an artificial retina to treat medical conditions leading to the loss of vision, brought him just that. Then, wanting to come back to Europe and to continue doing bioelectronics at the highest level possible, an opening at TU Delft crossed his path. ‘It was the easiest choice I ever made,’ he says.
As assistant professor within the Bioelectronics group, the central theme of Muratore’s research is to build brain-machine interfaces. In the first few years of his tenure, he will continue development of the artificial retina and also work on applications related to the motor cortex – ultimately allowing treatment of, for example, paralysis and locked-in syndrome. ‘Our aim is to interface with individual cells of the nervous system, also taking into account each neuron’s cell type,’ he says. ‘For the retina, it is mostly about stimulating these neurons so they will send the correct signal to the brain. For the motor cortex, we record the information coming from the brain, which indicates the intention of movement. We then want to use that information to control an external device, such as a mouse cursor or a robotic arm. We are also considering implementing feedback to the motor cortex as this may provide the user with a sense of body position.’
We aim for our brain-machine interfaces to interact with individual cells of the nervous system, also taking into account each neuron’s cell type.― Dante Muratore
A staggering amount of data
As they will be implanted, these brain-machine interfaces need to be small – the artificial retina device has the size of a pea. Yet, they need to manage massive amounts of data, comparable to streaming a hundred HD Netflix movies at once. Muratore closely collaborates with neuroscientists. ‘Basically, I need them to tell me how bad a job I can do at managing these data for the device to still operate as intended, so I can reduce overall power consumption.’ He also interacts with the people specialised in signal processing to determine, for example, if data compression should be integrated close to the (neural) sensor or if it is better to take it off-chip. ‘The biggest challenge, however, is not a scientific one,’ he says. ‘Each sub-problem requires a completely different academic specialty to design a solution – typically an incredibly complicated one. At the end of the day, you need to put these together to work as a single machine. This is a very challenging engineering problem.’
An implantable brain-machine interface has to be very small, yet able to handle massive amounts of data.― Dante Muratore
Happy in the Medical Delta
Muratore is very happy with the Medical Delta and the ongoing convergence with Erasmus University and Medical Centre. ‘A brain-machine interface really is not a one-man job,’ he says. ‘You want these medical and technical disciplines to mingle, to have lunch together over which to share the problems we run into. We need to truly understand each other and speak the same language.’ Having arrived pretty much with the country in lockdown, he hasn’t yet been able to build strong multi-disciplinary collaborations. But next month, he is expecting to hear about the Marie Curie grant proposal he submitted. ‘My group leader, Wouter Serdijn, has also involved me in the writing of a couple of large NWO grants. Bringing young people on board is one of the things that is great about TU Delft.’