Optical brain-machine interfaces earn graduate alumnus Beckman Foundation funding

Monday, Jun 21, 2021
by Scott Lyon

The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation has selected graduate alumnus Nicolas Pégard for its Young Investigator Program, providing him $600,000 in research funding over the next four years. He is one of 11 researchers in the 2021 cohort.

While pursuing his Ph.D. at Princeton, Pégard developed 3D microscopy techniques that had applications in biomedical research. Based on that work, he won a Harold Dodds Honorific Fellowship and took first prize at the 2013 Princeton Research Symposium (a forerunner of Princeton Research Day). He was advised by Jason Fleischer, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Now an assistant professor of applied physical sciences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Pégard has continued creating optical instruments to monitor and manipulate biological systems. But he has turned from traditional microscopy to an approach known as sculpted light to interact with living samples. The technique has proven especially relevant in probing neural activity deep in the brain.

As a Beckman young investigator, Pégard will develop tiny brain-machine interfaces to study advanced brain functions, brain diseases and the neural basis of animal behavior, according to his research summary. Rather than extracting neural activity from images, the light in Pégard's interfaces would be actively controlled and focused on neurons to optimize the communication between brain and machine without needing to create pictures. Such a platform has the potential to communicate directly with individual neurons in dense areas of the brain, at depths that today's most advanced microscopes cannot see. If successful, the work could open new avenues for neuroscientists to reverse engineer brain functions such as perception and cognition and pave the way to a more direct form of neurological rehabilitation.

Pégard joined UNC in 2019 after completing a postdoctoral position at the University of California-Berkeley. That same year, he received a Career Award at the Scientific Interface from the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation.