Ancient Egyptians used to zap themselves with small specimens of the Nile’s electric eels to relieve pain and, arguably, other neurological symptoms. Nowadays, when drugs are not sufficient to deal with refractory neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases, electric brain stimulation is offered as a treatment option. In fact, we are living in quite exciting times when the burgeoning field of neurotechnology can deliver stimulation to the brain in a variety of ways: electrically, magnetically, mechanically, and optically. The uncontrollable shaking in Parkinson’s disease can be quieted down; tics in Tourette’s syndrome can be suppressed; severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders can be tempered; some negative symptoms of schizophrenia may be alleviated; addictions can be reined in; attention in ADHD can be focused; tinnitus may be managed; Alzheimer’s affective symptoms may be improved.
Such movement and mental disorders are believed to involve an enigmatic collection of nuclei, called the basal ganglia, which are deeply located in the basal region of the brain under the cerebral cortex. Anatomically and physiologically, the basal ganglia are connected to the rest of the brain through pathways that convey motor, emotional, motivational, and cognitive functions. If the right stimulation signals are somehow transmitted to these pathways, current neurotechnologies promise therapeutic relief in disease, as well as, enhancement of mental function in health. The majority of interventions rely on delivering constant current or voltage pulses to the brain regardless of the actual ongoing activity inside the head (very much like a cardiac pacemaker). Moreover, the most successful technology, called deep brain stimulation, requires two surgeries: one drilling a hole in the head to place electrodes in the deep brain, and the other implanting the stimulator device in the chest or abdomen. Pursuant to these two surgeries, the patient has to frequently see clinicians to tune the stimulation device in response to changes in health condition.
We hope you can join us in our mission to improve current methods in brain stimulation technologies. We are developing a new stimulation paradigm that relies on communicating with the brain in its own language using signals that mimic the firing of actual neurons in the deep brain. Our system essentially negotiates with the brain’s signals in order to suppress or synchronize abnormal activity in certain pathways or augment activity in other pathways. We will apply our paradigm to four different neurotechnologies or devices that use electric and magnetic brain stimulation modalities: two interface directly with brain tissue, and two are on or near the head. We will investigate the response of deep brain structures to our stimulation paradigm using each of these four technologies. With the hope to eliminate the necessity of surgery, we will further develop noninvasive or minimally invasive means of delivering our stimulation paradigm to the brain. Furthermore, to eliminate reliance on clinicians and trial and error adjustments of the stimulating device, we will be developing adaptive neurostimulation systems that will engage the brain only when a distress signal is detected by certain biosensors on the scalp. We will thus be creating more sophisticated and individualized technologies that do not require drilling a hole in the skull and that can automatically adapt to changing personal needs. To conduct the research, you will be thoroughly engaged in a very new approach to biological/medical and psychological experimentation; this new approach aims to complement (and one day replace) clinical trials and animal testing through the use of detailed anatomical and physiological computer models of the human head and neck.
Academic, corporate, and government laboratories are currently very much invested in developing all sorts of medical devices that modulate neural activity, a challenging and rewarding research field officially called “neuromodulation.” By joining our pilot research program, you will be able to work closely with these institutions and develop contacts for future internships/employment. All it takes is a flair for imaginative creativity to become part of this brave alliance of neuroscience, psychology, medicine, biophysics, biomedical/electrical engineering and computer science.
For more information visit: fire.umd.edu
Dr. Robert Newcomb, Faculty Leader
Dr. Nevine El-leithy, Research Educator