Logo: University of Southern California

EE Professor Awarded $11.25 M to Lead MURI on Brain-Machine Interface Research

Maryam Shanechi to Lead a MURI from the Department of Defense
By: Amy Blumenthal
April 18, 2016 —


Assistant Professor & Viterbi Early Career Chair Maryam M. Shanechi, Photo Credit: USC Viterbi


Maryam M. Shanechi, Assistant Professor & Viterbi Early Career Chair in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has been awarded a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant to lead an interdisciplinary team that will develop brain-machine interfaces to enhance human decision making. The award totaling $11.25 M, provided by the US Department of Defense and the UK Ministry of Defense over a five-year period, aims to connect scholars at multiple universities to take on key research challenges.

The team, led by USC Viterbi’s Shanechi, includes researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Harvard University, New York University, UC Berkeley, Imperial College London, University College London and the University of Essex with expertise in neuroscience, machine learning, signal processing and distributed control. The research will focus on developing new methodologies for modeling multimodal neural, behavioral and physiological data from humans, and for understanding the brain’s decision making and multi-sensory processing. These methodologies will be used to build direct brain-computer interfaces that enhance human decision making under pressure. The researchers will study how humans’ decision-making processes work, and how humans integrate multi-sensory input such as visual and auditory cues into a unified percept. One example would be how the brain integrates the sight of moving lips with the sound of speech to better recognize what a person is trying to communicate. Together, the researchers will generate computational models to create increasingly intelligent interfaces and optimized displays to enhance human performance. The results of their research could be applied to enhance, for example, pilots’ decision making by optimizing how information is presented to them on the dashboard of a plane; or, to enhance how a vehicle operator interacts with his/her vehicle’s console when there are many distractions within his/her immediate environment.

To build such intelligent interfaces, the first step will be to record human neural activity in real-time, as humans interact with a machine, and use this recoding to estimate cognitive mental states—e.g., how tired or alert an individual might be, to what in particular a person is paying attention, how focused he/she is, and how confident an individual might be about a situation for which he/she has to make a quick decision.

The next step will be to create a closed-loop brain-computer interface incorporating the estimated mental states such as situational awareness, decision confidence and even the anticipation of a subject’s action to adapt the multi-sensory cues provided to the subject to improve his/her performance in split-second decision making. The experiments will be conducted across the above institutions and with the collaboration of Charles Liu, professor of neurological surgery and director of the USC Neurorestoration Center at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.

“The fact that the Department of Defense entrusted the leadership of this MURI to a junior faculty member such as Professor Shanechi is an emphatic endorsement of her remarkable talents in research, scholarship and leadership. We are looking forward to the results that will be obtained in this fascinating topic of brain-machine interaction—a field likely to be increasingly important as technology continues its exponential growth,” said USC Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos.

“I am very excited about this MURI award because it brings together a diverse team of scholars across engineering, computer science and neuroscience. So far, brain-machine interface research has mainly focused on restoration of human function and treatment of neurological disorders. In this effort, we will aim to build the next-generation of brain-machine interfaces with the goal of enhancing human decision making,” Shanechi said.

Shanechi has received an NSF Career Award, has been named in 2014 by MIT Technology Review World's Top 35 Innovators Under 35 (TR35), and earlier this year in the Popular Science Brilliant 10 for her work on brain-machine interfaces.

This MURI award is one of 23 MURI awards in 2016 (totaling $162 million in all) by the Department of Defense to academic institutions to perform multi-disciplinary basic research.