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Neural basis of auditory processing in young congenitally deaf subjects with cochlear implants

Final Report Summary - BRAINCI (Neural basis of auditory processing in young congenitally deaf subjects with cochlear implants)

FP7 Career Integration Grant awarded to Damir Kovačić, PhD was primarily focused on achieving his stable research career. During the project, five following major achievements were made:
1) The Laboratory for Speech and Hearing Research was officially established in September 2012 as an independent research laboratory at the School of Medicine, University of Split with Damir Kovačić acting as its head reporting to Dean of the School (http://www.kovacic.lab);
2) In May 2013, Damir Kovačić was appointed as an assistant professor of medical physics and biophysics at the School of Medicine, University of Split, ensuring potential for a long-term stability of his research and academic career in Croatia;
3) In January 2015, Damir Kovačić was appointed as an assistant professor of medical physics and biophysics at the Faculty of Science, University of Split, now sharing this position with the School of Medicine in equal parts (half-half);
4) During this project, additional four large grants were obtained which allows R&D activities and long-term sustainability of the recently established research platform for R&D in the field of medical neuroelectronics:
a) Structural grant “STRIPMED – Strengthening the capacity for Research, Development and Innovation of the University of Split in the field of medical neuroelectronics” (Structural fund for research and innovation RC.2.2.08 2015-2016, 16 months, 796.000 €);
b) Structural grant “Research Fellowships for young researchers in the field of medical neuroelectronics” (Structural Fund, HR.3.2.01 2015-2016, 15 months, 200.000€);
c) Science-Innovation Investment Fund (SIIF IPA IIIc, 2013-2015, 24 months, 340.000 EUR) to enhance science-business cooperation for intraoperative neurophysiologic technology in Croatia;
d) Business Innovation Agency (BICRO) Proof-of-Concept Grant (2013-2014, 15 months, 49.000 EUR) for development of novel auditory neuro-electronic interfaces based on in-vitro culturing of auditory neurons on top of semiconducting silicon-oxide substrates with nail-like protrusions.
5) Publication of three research papers in strong peer-reviewed scientific journals (J of Neural Engineering, Journal of Neuroscience, and Journal of Association for Research in Otorhinolaryngology).

In addition, the Lab started to collaborate with Cochlear Ltd, leading cochlear implant manufacturer on the project of enhancing voice gender identification using improved sound coding strategy.

As for research during the project period, our general approach was to design and implement psychoacoustic and auditory evoked potential experiments. They are performed in the specific population of young congenitally deaf cochlear implant (CI) subjects who have been exposed to exclusively auditory electrical stimulation within their first three years of life. The identification of potential CI subjects from all parts of Croatia is subject to an on-going evaluation of requested criteria (chronological age, language development, hearing history, CI parameters and measures in hearing performance). Research infrastructure has been upgraded by acquisition of CI research processor from Cochlear Ltd, leading CI manufacturer as well as by purchasing sound proof chamber conforming to the ISO-8253.2 standard with the high-quality sound recording and reproduction systems. This upgrade paves way for a direct and controlled electrical stimulation in CI users allowing needed flexibility in research experimentation with CI users.

Damir Kovačić supervises three doctoral students enrolled in the PhD program for Translational Research in Biomedicine for whom he secured full or partial fellowship from extramural sources. In addition, he is supervising one medical student for diploma thesis on tinnitus at working place.

Overall, the grant allowed successful build-up of new research program for speech and hearing at the University of Split. At the moment, Laboratory consists of 15 people (principal investigator, 3 PhD students, senior scientists, senior electrical engineers and administrative support).

He was awarded with the annual award for research in 2015, given by joint initiative of Slobodna Dalmacija, the national daily newspapers and the University of Split.

Impact
New independent lab for speech and hearing research at the University of Split creates tremendous impact at the level of School of Medicine and at the level of University of Split. The most important conceptual impact is the fact that Dr. Kovacic was able to create and carry out research based exclusively on extramural and competitive grants, receiving little if none of direct financial support from the University or Croatian government. And yet, he is the most successful project leader at the University of Split receiving almost 1.500.000 EUR of research fund in less than two years, allowing him to employ up to fifteen research and technical personnel (on expected temporary basis of two years). In addition, Dr.Kovacic employed for the first time foreign experienced researcher at the School of Medicine (Dr. Sc. Marta Mattotti from Italy/Spain) to act as post-doctoral researcher on auditory neuro-electronic interfaces removing high administrative and organization barrier and promoting truly research mobility within European Research Area. The European network was significantly enhanced by active collaboration with European consortium for Translation Research in Hearing (RijksUniversiteit Groningen, Oldenburg University, Poznan University and University of Salamanca) as well as with the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Professor Myles Mc Laughlin) and Trinity College Dublin (Neural Engineering Department led by Professor Richard O’Reilly). Thanks to these extensive networking, Dr.Kovacic lab participated in two FP7 (ICT) and two Horizon2020 applications (Marie Cure ITN, Health PHC28-2015).

Public Outreach
Besides research, the Lab was WP leader in the successful organization of FP7 funded “European Research Night 2013” event on Friday, September 27th 2013 participating in coordination of WP2 – activities during the night in Split. In addition, several public scientific and public outreach talks were held across Croatia and abroad: imec, Leuven; DTU, Denmark; University of Chile; University of Split; BICRO Zagreb; School of Medicine, Split, Research Executive Agency – REA, Brussels.
The project web is created and launched (www.kovaciclab.org). National newspaper, Slobodna Dalmacija reported on Lab activities in a large double-page article in February 2013. REA web site reported on Dr. Kovacic visit and his talk to REA in September 2013. The European Commission created short video on moving of Dr.Kovacic from Belgium to Croatia in July 2012 in the context of Croatia joining EU (http://youtu.be/8ccjNotPHHw).