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New thoughts about brain disorders

Electrical engineering research delves into mind

People with brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease could probably tell you about the limitations of current treatments. But what if they could have better options in the future — options beyond currently approved medications or devices?

Electrical engineering researchers at The Ohio State University may be paving the way toward future treatments that are safer, more effective and more reliable.

Bioengineer Liang Guo and his research team hope to show that it’s possible to use a patient’s own cells to address neurological problems. Meanwhile, Assistant Professor Asimina Kiourti is developing small wireless sensors that can be placed in the brain and monitored remotely without the need for implanted batteries.

Limitations of current treatments

More than 5 million people in the United States live with Alzheimer’s disease, and another 1 million people have some form of the central nervous system disorder known as Parkinson’s disease.

Medication is often the first line of treatment right now. People with Alzheimer’s have five FDA-approved medications available to them, depending on their specific case and circumstances, while those affected by Parkinson’s use medicine to treat symptoms such as tremors, slowed movements and rigidity.

Some people with Parkinson’s disease eventually may opt for device therapies, including the implantation of small electrodes in the brain. Powered by a battery-operated device in the chest called a neurostimulator, these electrodes target certain areas of the brain with electrical stimulation in an effort to interrupt the misfiring neural signals that cause the tremors and other symptoms. This is called deep brain stimulation.

Medications and current device treatments don’t cure the disorder, however. In the best scenarios, they just manage symptoms better — hopefully well enough for the patient to regain a satisfactory quality of life. The circuits in the brain have become damaged.

That’s where the long-term implications of Guo’s research matter.

Working toward a cure

Guo and his team are currently working to harvest neurons from an organism called Aplysia, a type of sea slug, with the goal of creating healthy functional neural circuits from those neurons in the lab. Eventually, they want to transplant those neural circuits back into the sea slug’s “brain.” If this process of reverse engineering and transplantation works as they hypothesize it will, those transplanted circuits would function normally.

 “If we repair those circuits, we could repair the brain permanently,” Guo said, “and that would be a cure.”

Plus, this type of transplant would eliminate one of the biggest problems associated with implanted devices: foreign body rejection. The body is far less likely to reject a tissue-construct made of its own cells than devices made from foreign materials.

But Guo says patience is required.

His team is a couple of years away from transplanting neural circuits back into the sea slug’s brain. Then they will assess the behavioral responses of the animal to determine if the programmed circuit is working correctly. After that, the research team would work their way up to conducting similar research on a mammal with much smaller neurons than their sea slugs, which makes the process more challenging.

“It’s a very ambitious idea,” he said.

A future with wearables

In the meantime, Kiourti’s work creating wireless and battery-less implants could be within reach in a much shorter timeframe.

She and her team are developing small brain implants that won’t need wires snaking through a person’s body to monitor the recorded signals and also won’t require any implanted batteries. Without wires and without batteries, there’s less potential for something to go wrong.

Their approach entails a smart hat/cap worn by the patient and used to “wake up” the brain implant. Once awake, the implant replies back to the hat/cap with the recorded brain signals. The latter can be readily visualized on a cell phone or transmitted to remote physicians.

“This novel method for unobtrusive brain activity ‘mapping’ will inevitably impact the evolution of health care,” she said.