From Mice to Machines: Biomedical engineers work to better understand the brain

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UT researchers use mice to explore the dimensions of the brain. The scalps of the mice are pulled back allowing researchers to induce the mice with a stroke in order to study the blood flow and oxygenation.

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By Reihaneh Hajibeigi, Monica Zhang, Kari Counter and Mary Ellen Knewtson

“What starts here changes the world” is call to excellence echoed in every corner of campus at the University of Texas at Austin. For biomedical professor Andrew Dunn and his research team, this statement could not ring any truer.

Dunn and team of graduate students have been using Speckle Image Technology since 2005 to research blood and oxygen flow in tissues through imaging techniques that allow them to record this information. Due to their advance research with broad potential medical applications, the team recently received a $1.75 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health. This is only the most recent grant Dunn’s team has received from the National Institutes of Health.

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The Research

Dunn partnered up with a neurologist to study strokes and migraines but at the time there was no current procedure to visualize the blood flow changes during these events. The two began to focus on developing an imaging technique that would monitor the blood flow in the brain and Speckle Image Technology was created.

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While the research is complex and consists of multiple projects under the label of optical imaging techniques, graduate student Lisa Richards summarizes the research as “focusing on blood flow and oxygenation and understanding the physiological changes that occur during physiological events.”

The team can record measurements of blood flow and oxygenation in healthy tissues and then compare them with ones going through a stroke in order to better understand what is happening in the brain during these complications.

The team hopes this new understanding will lead to improved treatment and rehab for patients. Graduate student Shams Kamzi said the team still faces uncertainties about the brain.

“The brain is still a black box to us we don’t understand what the normal function is let alone what happens when a disease is present,” said Kamzi. Due to the need to still learn more about the brain, prior to treating disease based off of levels in the brain a core component of the research is “mapping the brain”.

“Our lab is focused on the brain. We’re looking at mapping the brain during different tasks, motor tasks, seeing which part of the brain lights up,” said Kamzi. “Essentially we can shine a laser light on it and see the difference in the light. That’s the date we can record.”

Dunn and other biomedical engineers create tools to measure information previously thought to be unquantifiable information.  Since this area of research is undeveloped, using these new techniques to record measurements will aid in understanding how the brain works and what parts function for what purposes.

“If we can quantify blood flow in the brain we can use it both to study normal physiological behavior of how our brain works and also to characterize diseases because it’s probably due to some deviation from that normal,” said Kamzi.

Uses For The Research

The research can be applied in a variety of research and clinical disciplines.

“One of the limitations of the technology is you do need direct access to the brain so it limits our use in humans to neurosurgery,” said Dunn. “But there is a lot of potential uses as a real time feedback tool to the neurosurgeon during the procedures.”

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According to Kamzi, the new technology can be used in multiple direct access ways. One would be to diagnose where the problem is. The second would be to use the technology to the monitor blood flow and oxygenation of the patient during and after treatment to record progress. The final and most complicated application is in an interventional way that would use the technology directly in the treatment or rehab of a patient.

“[The technology] can be coupled with a complimentary technique that can be used to improve the person’s health,” said Kamzi. “We are designing our instruments for all three endeavors in the clinic.”

Further down the road both Kamzi and Richards can envision these techniques and technologies applied in other areas aside from neuroscience since the technology is based off of an optical technique. This would mean anywhere light can be accessed the technique would be applicable, most obviously with the retina or dermatology research, said Kazmi.

The Grant

The research, which is already partnered with surgeons at St. David’s for application purposes, receives its funding from a variety of sources including the University of Texas, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and private funding from organizations like the Dana Foundation. The most recent funding came in the form of a grant from NIH worth $ 1.75 million.

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“The grant is specifically for understanding how the delivery of oxygen to the brain is effected when individual blood vessels get blocked,” said Dunn.

Laser imaging is used to

Laser imaging is used to “shine a light” on the brain to monitor the blood flow when a tumor or stroke occurs.

Nicole Garbarini, media and communications specialist for NIH, explained that NIH grants are awarded for research projects and programs to support scientific research of pertinent priorities to the government. To receive a grant an application must go through two layers of review: one by a Scientific Research Group (SRG) and one by an Institute and Center National Advisory Counsil (IC). The former consists of non-federal scientists while the latter consists of scientists and public representatives with knowledge of the research area.

“Only applications that are favorably recommended by both the SRG and the Advisory Council may be recommended for funding,” said Garbarini. “NIH institutes and centers then make decisions about funding based on those scores and research priorities.”

The University of Texas receives numerous grants each year due to the contributions of professors like Dunn to the academic environment of the campus. Biomedical Engineering Communications Coordinator Valerie Nies thinks professors like Dunn who receive these grants and conduct this research greatly contribute to the development of biomedical engineering students at UT.

“Our professors are working in areas that will benefit all of us. All of us are going to have health issues,” said Nies. “The thing that Andrew Dunn is working on with stroke research is very exciting to think about because we are all — or our relatives are all — affected by these things.”

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Click infographic to hear Shams Kamzi explain research process.

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