Week in BioE (July 27, 2017)

The Brain in Focus

BrainAt Caltech, scientists are exploiting the information generated by body movements, determining how the brain codes these movements in the anterior intraparietal cortex — a part of the brain beneath the top of the skull. In a paper published in Neuron, Richard A. Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience at Caltech, and his team tested how this region coded body side, body part, and cognitive strategy, i.e., intention to move vs. actual movement. They were able determine specific neuron groups activated by different movements. With this knowledge, more effective prosthetics for people experiencing limb paralysis or other kinds of neurodegenerative conditions could benefit enormously.

Elsewhere in brain science, findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players have raised significant controversy. Seeking to better understand head impact exposure in young football players, scientists from Wake Forest University led by biomedical engineer Joel D. Stitzel, fitted athletes with telemetric devices and collected four years of data and more than 40,000 impacts. They report in the Journal of Neurotrauma that, while all players experienced more high magnitude impacts during games compared to practices, younger football players experienced a greater number of such impacts during practices than the other groups, and older players experienced a greater number during actual games. The authors believe their data could contribute to better decision-making in the prevention of football-related head injuries.

Up in Canada, a pair of McGill University researchers in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery — Professor Christopher Pack and Dave Liu, a grad student in Dr. Pack’s lab — found that neuroplasticity might apply to more parts of the brain than previously thought. They report in Neuron that the middle temporal area of the brain, which contributes to motion discrimination and can be inactivated by certain drugs, could become relatively impervious to such inactivation if pretrained. Their findings could have impacts on both prevention of and cures for certain types of brain injury. 

The Virtues of Shellfish

If you’ve ever had a diagnostic test performed at the doctor’s office, you’ve had your specimen submitted to bioassay, a test in which living cells or tissue is used to test the sampled material. University of Washington bioengineer Xiaohu Gao and his colleagues used polydopamine, an enzyme occurring in shellfish, to increase the sensitivity of bioassays by orders of magnitude. As reported in Nature Biomedical Engineering, they tested the technology, called enzyme-accelerated signal enhancement (EASE), in HIV detection, finding that it was able to help bioassays identify the virus in tiny amounts. This advance could lead to earlier diagnosis of HIV, as well as other conditions.

Mussels are also contributing to the development of new bioadhesives. Julie Liu, associate professor of chemical engineering at Purdue, modeled an elastin-like polypeptide after a substance produced naturally by mussels, reporting her findings in Biomaterials. With slight materials, Dr. Liu and her colleagues produced a biomaterial with moderate adhesive strength that demonstrated the greatest strength yet among these materials when tested under water. The authors hope to develop a “smart” underwater adhesive for medical and other applications.

Science in Motion

Discussions of alternative forms of energy have focused on the big picture, such as alleviating our dependence on fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy, like the sun and wind. On a much smaller level, however, engineers are finding smaller energy sources — specifically people.

Reporting in ACS Energy Letters, a research team led by Vanderbilt’s Cary Pint, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and head of Vanderbilt’s Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory Nanomaterials and Energy Devices Laboratory, designed a battery in the form of an ultrathin black phosphorous device that can generate electricity as it is bent. Dr. Pint describes the device in a video here. Although it can’t yet power an iPhone, the possibility isn’t far away.

Moving Up

Two BE/BME departments have named new chairs. At the University of Utah, David Grainger, who previously chaired the Department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, will become chair of the Department of Bioengineering. Closer to home, Michael I. Miller became the new chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering on July 1. Congratulations to them both!

This Week in BioE (June 22, 2017)

Diversifying the Field

One of the ongoing issues in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) fields is a lack of diversity among students and faculty. Bioengineering stands out among other engineering fields because it enjoys terrific gender diversity. For example, about half of Penn Bioengineers are women, a feature of our class that goes back decades.

diversifyingHowever, diversity extends well beyond gender. For example, the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) has been working to increase diversity, including among students with disabilities. A consortium of people and groups providing mentors for science students, the MRMN recently highlighted the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Entry Point! program, which focuses on helping students with physical disabilities. Mentoring, it turns out is a big part of helping these students succeed.

Another recent development that should help to increase diversity in the field is the awarding of a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Engineering to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the College of Menominee Nation (CMN), a native American college in Wisconsin, to collaborate in engineering research and education. The new grant builds on a program begun in 2010 between the colleges to build labs and facilitate the transfer of pre-engineering students from CMN to UWM.

Brain Science Developments

Speaking of education, three recent news stories discuss how we might be able to expedite the learning process, increase intelligence, and reward ourselves when we create art. In one of the stories, a company called Kernel is investing $100 million in research at the University of Southern California to determine whether using brain implants, which have been helpful in some patients with epilepsy, can be used to increase or recover memory. If successful, this may bridge one critical treatment gap in neurology. About one out of every three people with epilepsy don’t respond to drug treatment.

In the second story, scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas were awarded a $5.8 million contract from DARPA to investigate the role of vagus nerve stimulation in accelerated learning of foreign languages. Stimulating the peripheral nervous system to activate and train areas of the brain is one more example that our nervous system is connected in ways that we do not yet understand completely. The Department of Defense hopes to use the technology to more quickly train intelligence operatives and code breakers.

Finally, in a third story involving the brain, a professor at Drexel University used functional near-infrared spectroscopy to determine which parts of the brain were activated while participants were making art. Dr. Girija Kaimal’s team found that creative endeavors activate the brain’s rewards pathway, as well as elevating the participants’ self-opinion. So making art always made people feel good about themselves; now we know more of the reasons why.