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

 
 

What were the top read stories on Houston energy innovation? These five articles attracted the most attention this year. Photo via Getty Images

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In the energy capital of the world, there were dozens of energy tech stories, from most-promising energy tech startups to new cohorts of energy accelerators. Here are five Houston energy tech-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Investors name most promising energy tech startups at annual Houston event

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship handed out awards to the founders of the most promising companies that pitched. Photo courtesy of Slyworks Photography/Rice Alliance

Nearly 100 energy tech startups pitched at the 19th annual Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Forum this week — and over a third of those companies are based in the Houston area.

At the conclusion of the event — which took place on Thursday, September 15, at Rice University, and included a day full of company pitches, panels, and thought leadership — 10 startups were deemed the most promising among their peers. The group was voted on by investors attending office hours ahead of the event.

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship facilitated nearly 700 meetings between 70 investor groups and 90 ventures, according to the organization. The group of presenting companies included participants from Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator's first two cohorts.Read more.

Energy transition innovator shares how Houston could be a biomanufacturing hub​

Moji Karimi joins InnovationMap to discuss how Cemvita Factory has deployed its recent investment funding and what's next for the company and Houston as a whole when it comes to biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Moji Karimi and his sister Tara had the idea for a company that could transform carbon emissions and mitigate new damage to the environment. Only, it seems, they were a bit ahead of their time.

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, founded in 2017, uses synthetic biology and take carbon emissions and transform them into industrial chemicals. However, it's only been since recently that the conversation on climate change mitigation has focused on carbon utilization.

"I think people are realizing more about the importance of really focusing on carbon capture and utilization because fossil fuels are gonna be here, whether we like it or not, for a long time, so the best thing we could do is to find ways to decarbonize them," Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO, tells InnovationMap. "There's been this focus around carbon capture and storage, and I think the next awakening is going to be utilization." Read more.

3 startups join Houston cleantech incubator

Halliburton Labs has announced its next set of clean energy tech companies. Photo courtesy of Halliburton

Three businesses have just joined Halliburton Labs, a Houston-based accelerator for clean energy startups.

The new members of Halliburton Labs are A-W Energy, a Finland-based startup whose technology converts ocean waves into energy; RedShift Energy, a Pennsylvania-based startup whose technology recovers hydrogen; and Renkube, an India-based startup whose technology aims to lower the cost of producing solar power.

Halliburton Labs says its participants enjoy access to technical expertise, mentorships, and other benefits.

“These new companies reflect our view that numerous innovations at scale are important in the evolution of energy systems. … We are eager to collaborate with these companies to help them achieve their strategic, operational, and financial milestones,” Dale Winger, managing director of Halliburton Labs, says in a news release. Read more.

Houston oil and gas company reveals details on $1B carbon capture facility

Oxy is working on a direct air carbon capture facility in the Permian Basin — and is committing to up to a $1 billion price tag for the project. Rendering via 1pointfive.com

Ramping up its investment in clean energy, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum plans to spend up to $1 billion on a facility in the Permian Basin that will pull carbon dioxide from the air.

During a March 23 investor update, executives at Occidental laid out their strategy for developing direct air carbon capture plants and carbon sequestration hubs.

Executives said Occidental’s first direct air capture facility is set to be built in the Permian Basin, a massive oil-producing region in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. The industrial-scale facility, with an estimated price tag of $800 million to $1 billion, is on track to open in late 2024. Construction is supposed to start later this year. Read more.

How Greentown Houston accelerated the local energy transition in its inaugural year

Greentown Houston's Juliana Garaizar and Emily Reichert look back on the climatetech incubator's first year. Photos via greentownlabs.com

This Thursday, Greentown Houston officially celebrates the completion of its first year in town, as well as the impact its made in just the 365 days since its grand opening.

Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, officially cut the ribbon on the organization's first location outside of the Boston area last Earth Day. Reichert, along with Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A looking back on this past year — including what surprised them most and where members are moving in from. Read more.

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