Brain teasers

3 ways University of Houston researchers are innovating brain treatments and technologies

Three UH researchers are revolutionizing the way we think the brain works. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

While a lot of scientists and researchers have long been scratching their heads over complicated brain functionality challenges, these three University of Houston researchers have made crucial discoveries in their research.

From dissecting the immediate moment a memory is made or incorporating technology to solve mobility problems or concussion research, here are the three brain innovations and findings these UH professors have developed.

Brains on the move

Professor of biomedical engineering Joe Francis is reporting work that represents a significant step forward for prosthetics that perform more naturally. Photo courtesy of UH Research

Brain prosthetics have come a long way in the past few years, but a UH professor and his team have discovered a key feature of a brain-computer interface that allows for an advancement in the technology.

Joe Francis,a UH professor of biomedical engineering, reported in eNeuro that the BCI device is able to learn on its own when its user is expecting a reward through translating interactions "between single-neuron activities and the information flowing to these neurons, called the local field potential," according to a UH news release. This is all happening without the machine being specifically programmed for this capability.

"This will help prosthetics work the way the user wants them to," says Francis in the release. "The BCI quickly interprets what you're going to do and what you expect as far as whether the outcome will be good or bad."

Using implanted electrodes, Francis tracked the effects of reward on the brain's motor cortex activity.

"We assume intention is in there, and we decode that information by an algorithm and have it control either a computer cursor, for example, or a robotic arm," says Francis in the release.

A BCI device would be used for patients with various brain conditions that, as a result of their circumstances, don't have full motor functionality.

"This is important because we are going to have to extract this information and brain activity out of people who cannot actually move, so this is our way of showing we can still get the information even if there is no movement," says Francis.

Demystifying the memory making moments

Margaret Cheung, a UH professor, is looking into what happens when a memory is formed in the brain. Photo courtesy of UH Research

What happens when a brain forms a new memory? Margaret Cheung, a UH professor in the school of physics, computer science, and chemistry, is trying to find out.

Cheung is analyzing the exact moment a neuron forms a memory in our brains and says this research will open doors to enhancing memory making in the future.

"The 2000 Nobel laureate Eric Kandel said that human consciousness will eventually be explained in terms of molecular signaling pathways. I want to see how far we can go to understand the signals," says Cheung in a release.

Cheung is looking at calcium in particular, since this element impacts most of cellular life.

"How the information is transmitted from the calcium to the calmodulin and how CaM uses that information to activate decisions is what we are exploring," says Cheung in the release. "This interaction explains the mechanism of human cognition."

Her work is being funded by a $1.1 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Science from the National Institutes of Health, and she's venturing into uncharted territories with her calcium signaling studies. Previous research hasn't been precise or conclusive enough for real-world application.

"In this work we seek to understand the dynamics between calcium signaling and the resulting encoded CaM states using a multiphysics approach," says Cheung. "Our expected outcome will advance modeling of the space-time distribution of general secondary messengers and increase the predictive power of biophysical simulations."

New tech for brain damage treatment

Badri Roysam, chair of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is leading the project that uncovering new details surrounding concussions. Photo courtesy of UH Research

Concussions and brain damage have both had their fair shares of question marks, but this UH faculty member is tapping into new technologies to lift the curtain a little.

Badri Roysam, the chair of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is heading up a multimillion-dollar project that includes "super microscopes" and the UH supercomputer at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute. Roysam calls the $3.19 million project a marriage between these two devices.

"By allowing us to see the effects of the injury, treatments and the body's own healing processes at once, the combination offers unprecedented potential to accelerate investigation and development of next-generation treatments for brain pathologies," says Roysam in a release.

The project, which is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), is lead by Roysam and co-principal investigator John Redell, assistant professor at UTHealth McGovern Medical School. The team also includes NINDS scientist Dragan Maric and UH professors Hien Van Nguyen and Saurabh Prasad.

Concussions, which affect millions of people, have long been mysterious to scientists due to technological limitations that hinder treatment options and opportunities.

"We can now go in with eyes wide open whereas before we had only a very incomplete view with insufficient detail," says Roysam in the release. "The combinations of proteins we can now see are very informative. For each cell, they tell us what kind of brain cell it is, and what is going on with that cell."

The technology and research can be extended to other brain conditions, such as strokes, brain cancer, and more.

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Building Houston

 
 

This health tech company has made some significant changes in order to keep up with its growth. Photo via Getty Images

With a new CEO and chief operating officer aboard, Houston-based DataJoint is thinking small in order to go big.

Looking ahead to 2022, DataJoint aims to enable hundreds of smaller projects rather than a handful of mega-projects, CEO Dimitri Yatsenko says. DataJoint develops data management software that empowers collaboration in the neuroscience and artificial intelligence sectors.

"Our strategy is to take the lessons that we have learned over the past four years working with major projects with multi-institutional consortia," Yatsenko says, "and translate them into a platform that thousands of labs can use efficiently to accelerate their research and make it more open and rigorous."

Ahead of that shift, the startup has undergone some significant changes, including two moves in the C-suite.

Yatsenko became CEO in February after stints as vice president of R&D and as president. He co-founded the company as Vathes LLC in 2016. Yatsenko succeeded co-founder Edgar Walker, who had been CEO since May 2020 and was vice president of engineering before that.

In tandem with Yatsenko's ascent to CEO, the company brought aboard Jason Kirkpatrick as COO. Kirkpatrick previously was chief financial officer of Houston-based Darcy Partners, an energy industry advisory firm; chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Houston-based Solid Systems CAD Services (SSCS), an IT services company; and senior vice president of finance and general manager of operations at Houston-based SmartVault Corp., a cloud-based document management company.

"Most of our team are scientists and engineers. Recruiting an experienced business leader was a timely step for us, and Jason's vast leadership experience in the software industry and recurring revenue models added a new dimension to our team," Yatsenko says.

Other recent changes include:

  • Converting from an LLC structure to a C corporation structure to enable founders, employees, and future investors to be granted shares of the company's stock.
  • Shortening the business' name to DataJoint from DataJoint Neuro and recently launching its rebranded website.
  • Moving the company's office from the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx) to the Galleria area. The new space will make room for more employees. Yatsenko says the 12-employee startup plans to increase its headcount to 15 to 20 by the end of this year.

Over the past five years, the company's customer base has expanded to include neuroscience institutions such as Princeton University's Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute for Brain Science, as well as University College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. DataJoint's growth has been fueled in large part by grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The work we are tackling has our team truly excited about the future, particularly the capabilities being offered to the neuroscience community to understand how the brain forms perceptions and generates behavior," Yatsenko says.

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