Where I work: The shared dream of the ABILITY team

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Project manager in Neuroengineering, Shenandoah Montamat, shares her hopes and dreams about the project she is leading, a brain computer interface (BCI) system for applications such as restoration of communication and movement for people with severe paralysis

Shenandoah reveals her first invention at the age of five and describes the ABILITY team’s shared dream.

How did you come to work in neuroengineering?

For me, innovation has always been there. When I was five, I made my first drawing as an inventor; it was a shopping cart with a motor. I was sick of going to the supermarket on foot so I invented a shopping cart with a motor, so that I wouldn’t have to walk there. That was my very first invention.

I have also always liked management. Even as a child, every time we had to work in teams, I would be the one managing the project and setting people tasks. Even back then, we managed to deliver projects on time with good results!

When I was ten, I decided to study biology. I was fascinated with cells and I knew that I wanted to study life and understand where we came from.

After I finished my biology degree, I considered doing a Ph.D. but I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to stay in academia, I needed to spread my wings. So, I joined a medical device company, where I started my professional career. While I was there, I realized I needed something else in my life. Just working wasn’t enough for me. I needed to study more, so I started looking for a second degree and I decided to pursue psychology. Until that moment, neuroscience for me meant cells. And suddenly, with psychology, neuroscience was more than cells. Neuroscience was the phenotype that emerges from cells: personality and behaviour. And for me, it was fascinating to realize how the links in the chain connect. This led me to look for a master’s degree with a holistic approach to neuroscience and I found it at the University of Geneva.

Prior to that, I had done a post-graduate diploma in project management dedicated to research and development. There, one of my colleagues, an engineer working in prosthetics, showed me this super cool video from EPFL of a guy driving a wheelchair with an EEG cap. And this captivated me. At that point, I realized I wanted to be part of that, but I wasn’t an engineer, and I didn’t know how to fit into that world.

When I saw that the Wyss Center was looking for a project manager - which was my background - with experience in medical devices - as I had - with some knowledge in neuroscience - which I had - to be the project manager of a BCI system, I couldn’t believe it, and I applied without a second thought.

Can you describe your role at the Wyss Center?

I work as a neuroengineering project manager developing a BCI system called ABILITY to enable movement and communication in people with severe paralysis.

I manage the project strategy, the budget and I organize the timeline. I am also working on the design and development plans. As ABILITY is a regulated medical device, I work closely with the regulatory team to ensure compliance and submission of documents to competent authorities. This is to ensure that ABILITY reaches the people it is intended for. In essence, the role of the project manager is to guide the project from the beginning until the end, both in the short term, and in the longer term.

Tell us more about ABILITY

ABILITY stands for Active Brain Implant Live Information Transfer System. It comprises an active implant placed on the skull, under the scalp, and is connected to microelectrodes that acquire neural signals directly from the brain. There is a wearable device that wirelessly receives the neural signals from the implant and transfers them to a computer. Finally, the Wyss Center’s NeuroKey software transforms neural signals into commands to control assistive devices.

What impact could this device have?

The final goal of ABILITY is to transform those neural signals into either communication or movement.

Concerning communication, the ABILITY system aims to help people with locked in syndrome as a result of disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), for example. When people cannot move, and cannot communicate by any other means, ABILITY would help them to communicate through speller software. It would allow them to express how they feel and communicate their needs to caregivers. We have demonstrated this principle in a recent clinical case-study that enabled communication using a BCI with a wired connection between the brain and the computer. ABILITY is the natural next step as it will enable wireless communication between the brain and computer bringing the technology closer to safe, long-term daily use at home.

Regarding movement, the concept is similar; patients would be able to drive a robotic arm, a wheelchair, or an orthopaedic leg, for example, with their thoughts.

How does it feel to work on such an inspirational project?

I feel very lucky. I sometimes I can’t even believe I have the luck to be working in a project like this. To be honest, what motivates me the most is knowing that what we are doing will end up helping patients not one or two, but many.

It is important to also talk about the great multidisciplinary team we have working on the project, both here in Geneva and our collaborators in Switzerland and internationally. There are really a lot of people involved in this and we are working together to improve people’s lives.

One of the best things about working at the Wyss Center, is that we have a shared dream, and you can feel that. We all have the same final goal. We really care about putting this into patients. Having so many people motivated by the same goal drives us a lot.