Illinois Bioengineering launches nation's first bachelor's degree in neural engineering

9/29/2022 Bethan Owen, Laura Schmitt

The neural engineering major will give undergraduate students an immersion in the fundamentals of neuroscience and beyond.

Written by Bethan Owen, Laura Schmitt

As the incidence of stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, traumatic brain injury, psychiatric disorders, and other neural-related diseases has increased, industry has responded with major advances in brain-machine interfaces, noninvasive functional neuroimaging, high-resolution brain mapping, and artificial intelligence.

To keep the advances rolling, industry needs highly trained and educated engineers to further develop and implement these technologies on a grand scale. And when those training and education programs don’t exist, they must be created. 

Illinois Bioengineering has answered the call by recently establishing the first bachelor of science degree in neural engineering in the country. This ground-breaking field of study will give undergraduate students an introduction to and an immersion in the fundamentals of neuroscience, as well as the chance to integrate skill development in electrical and imaging systems, molecular and cellular engineering, biological interfacing, and computational data sciences. 

Students’ coursework will be framed around the application of design principles so that they’re equipped to solve modern problems in basic and translational neuroscience.

“We need students to be trained in these next-generation technologies,” said bioengineering professor Andrew Smith, the associate head of undergraduate programs in bioengineering. 

“This new degree ties in nicely with the launch of a new B.S. degree in neuroscience this fall at Illinois, as well as with our research strengths in neuroscience across campus and particularly at the Beckman Institute.”

Neural engineering is an exciting field that is already challenging the limits of what we can achieve in healthcare and medical technology. Recent advances in neural engineering have restored mobility to individuals with paralysis, relieved symptoms of movement disorders, reduced chronic pain, restored the sense of hearing, and enabled noninvasive monitoring of electrical signals from individual neurons in the living brain. 

If these incredible achievements are the starting point, imagine what kind of advancements are waiting in the future.

The first neural engineering class of approximately 35 students will begin in the fall of 2023. The program is slated to reach a steady size of 140 students by fall of 2027.

“We are excited to be at the forefront of neural engineering education,” said bioengineering department head Mark Anastasio. “Our new program will train the next generation of neural engineers with a high level of rigor that will enable them to integrate fundamental principles of bioengineering, neuroscience, imaging and data science.”

The first two years of the program provide students with a foundational knowledge in the biological and physical sciences and bioengineering principles.

During their third and fourth years, students will receive focused training in neural engineering fundamentals and applications through purposely designed core courses and neural engineering electives. 

Smith envisions that students graduating with the neural engineering degree will be well positioned to work as engineers in growing healthcare industry sectors related to neurological devices, brain-computer interfaces, neurological disease treatments, and brain imaging technologies. However, with a background in an innovative and broadly applicable field like neural engineering, the sky’s the limit. 

“This training will prepare our students for a variety of employment paths involving neurotechnologies, as well as providing a solid foundation for advanced study,” said Anastasio.

Graduates will also be positioned to pursue professional degrees in medicine and graduate studies in clinical, life, and behavioral sciences. From the healthcare industry to neuroimaging, disease treatment, academia and beyond, studying neural engineering will give graduates the opportunity to be pioneers of study in any field they choose.

Additional information, including a curriculum map, can be found here.


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This story was published September 29, 2022.