This year The ALS Association has pledged to do whatever it takes to make ALS a livable disease, which means longer lives for people living with ALS, greater quality of life for people living with the disease and ultimately the prevention of ALS altogether. Researchers like our 2020 Milton Safenowitz Postdoctoral Fellowship Program recipients are playing an important role in helping to make this happen.
Our Milton Safenowitz Postdoctoral Fellowship Program continues to support young scientists and is the only program of its kind specifically funding early ALS postdoctoral fellows eagerly searching for a cure. Founded in memory of Mr. Safenowitz by the Safenowitz family through The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter, this unique program encourages young scientists to enter and, importantly, to remain in the ALS field.
More than 75% of the postdoctoral fellows we fund go on to start their own labs to continue studying ALS and mentor other young ALS researchers. The rest of the Safenowitz fellowship program graduates typically go on to careers in the biomedical industry, nonprofits, and medical writing, with many still staying in the ALS space.
This year, we are proud to support eight new postdoctoral fellows out of a highly competitive applicant pool. Over the coming months, we will continue to highlight each fellow, their dedication and unique contributions to ALS research, as well as their interests outside of the lab.
Dr. Nishal Shah, whose award was made possible directly through funds provided by The ALS Association Oregon and SW Washington Chapter, is a postdoctoral fellow from the Stanford Neural Prosthetics Translational Laboratory (NPTL) in Stanford, California. We recently spoke with Nishal to learn more about him and his unique project focused on providing an assistive communication device for people with severe speech and motor impairment due to ALS using an intracortical Brain Computer Interface (iBCI).
Can you briefly describe your academic background?
I have a bachelors, masters and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. During my Ph.D., I got interested in neuroscience and worked on understanding how the retina encodes visual information, with the goal of developing an artificial retina that can restore sight in people with some forms of blindness. Currently, I am pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford, and continuing my journey in neuroengineering by helping build better brain computer interfaces for restoring movement and communication in people with paralysis.
It is said that every 90 minutes, someone is diagnosed with ALS and every 90 minutes someone dies from the disease. Time is not on the side of those who are diagnosed, and no matter what issues we are all currently facing in the world, ALS won’t stop, so neither will we. What are you doing to address the urgency our ALS community is feeling?
I am deeply aware of this urgency and the fact that we need approaches that can be translated quickly to the clinical setting. My research uses brain computer interfaces (BCI) -- where a chip is implanted on the brain to record and transmit neural activity, and this activity is decoded to identify the intended movements. This technology can drastically improve the quality of life at the advanced stages of ALS, by restoring the patient’s ability to communicate with their family members and caregivers. As I am part of a clinical trial, I routinely work with participants with intracortical electrode array implants, and I am actively developing algorithms to decode various forms of intended movements.
What are the goals of your funded research project?
As the goal of my project, I want to develop a flexible and powerful ten-finger typing brain-controlled interface for communication. Since the advent of BCIs, most communication interfaces have focused on point and click mechanism, where a cursor is moved on the screen and used for clicking. Recently, a work from our lab showed that imagined handwriting could be decoded from neural activity, and it can increase the speed and accuracy of writing text. Inspired by this, the goal of my project is to further increase the performance by decoding imagined ten-finger typing, since it has emerged as the primary mode of communication for computers. To enable this new interface, we need to first understand how fast, dexterous finger and hand movements are represented in the neural activity and how to design the keyboard interface for best performance.
Why did you decide to study ALS over other diseases?
ALS research is an ideal combination of my interests and background. I have been interested in studying how information is represented in neural activity. After spending a few years thinking about basic science questions, I gravitated towards translational research, where I was trying to find applications of my neuroscience interests to help improve people’s lives. Eventually, I started working on BCIs for restoring movement in people with paralysis as it is such an important problem, and I can apply the skills from my background in electrical engineering and signal processing.
What do you like about working in the ALS research field?
I have been amazed by the commitment of the patients, caretakers, families and doctors. The unpredictability of the disease has created a diverse and supportive community that fights together and supports each other. Particularly, I am inspired by the patients who are willing to be part of clinical trials and basic science research for helping find a cure for future patients. They are the real “pioneers” by leading us to new scientific discoveries.
How might your work impact the ALS community?
I am hoping that my work will significantly improve the quality of life in participants with late-stage ALS. If successful, our communication brain computer interfaces will help patients communicate with their caretakers and their loved ones, and also use a computer to chat, go on social media or browse the internet. For my current project, accurate decoding of dexterous hand movements would enable applications such as typing and piano. Moreover, the insights on decoding rapid movement sequences might be useful for speech as well.
Where can people get more details about your research project?
The lab (https://nptl.stanford.edu/) and consortium (https://www.braingate.org/) websites are a good resource to know more about the projects going on in our group.
It is often said that ALS is one of the most complex diseases to understand. Yet, you go to work every day to tackle the challenges of your research. What gives you hope that there will someday be a world without ALS?
Humans have solved a lot of complex problems throughout history and the pace of scientific breakthrough has accelerated tremendously in the past hundred years. Despite this, it has always been hard to predict when the next breakthrough will occur. Hence, we never know when a revolutionary idea is just around the corner. The only thing we can do is keep pushing -- try till we succeed.
What do you like to do when you aren’t in the lab?
I like to listen to podcasts, music and watch TV. Currently, I am enjoying 80’s sitcoms and movies. Apart from that, I maintain a small garden in my backyard.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, we are currently recruiting participants as part of the BrainGate clinical trial for studying the safety of intracortical brain computer interfaces. Using neural recordings in the motor cortex, we aim to develop algorithms for decoding whole body movements, handwriting and speech. For further details, see https://www.braingate.org/clinical-trials/.