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.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."