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

 
 

Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local leaders joined the stage for the Ten Across summit in Houston this week. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston has an integral role to play in the energy transition, and that role was thoroughly discussed at a recent conference taking place in the Bayou City.

This week, Houston hosted the 10X Summit: The Future Is Here, an event by Ten Across — an organization that focuses on social, economic, and climate change issues across the region around Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. The three-day conference featured guest speakers who spoke to resiliency, water, the future of energy, and more.

Among these speakers included a handful of Houston researchers, political figures, and innovators — and much of their conversations overlapped related topics and themes, from Hurricane Harvey's legacy and impact on the business community to the role the city will play in the energy transition.

When it comes to the energy transition, here are the key messages Houston leaders shared with 10X attendees.

The energy transition can't happen without Houston

The topic of the energy transition came up right out of the gate for the summit. At the welcome reception on Tuesday, Bobby Tudor, CEO of Artemis Energy Partners and founder and former CEO of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., spoke to the evolution of the industry and how Houston is a major factor in the energy transition's success.

“I don’t think (the energy transition) is going to happen without (Houston)," Tudor says at the fireside chat with Wellington Reiter, executive director of Ten Across. "There's a notion that the transition is inevitable. It’s inevitable — only if our technology continues to advance and improve, only if new assets get deployed, only if capital supports it, and only if the people who know and understand the energy systems are leaning in to make it happen.”

For Tudor, who served as chair of the Greater Houston Partnership in 2020 and made it his mission to communicate the importance of industry evolution during his tenure, Houston businesses motivated by opportunities in business should be looking at the energy transition.

“We’re very good in Houston that, when we see a dollar bill lying on the ground, we bend over and pick it up. Right now, there’s fantastic opportunity in the energy transition space," he says. "We have both a responsibility and an opportunity to be the leaders in the global energy transition.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner in his chat with Reiter on Thursday addressed how some might think that Houston — a headquarters for some of the biggest oil and gas giants — might not be the right city to lead a cleaner energy system, but Turner argued that's exactly why it has to happen here.

“We are the energy capital of the world," he says. "The reality is we have some of the largest greenhouse gas emitters principally located right here in Houston. To the extent of leading an energy transition, the impact is not just locally. The impact is globally.”

Barbara Burger, former president of Chevron Technology Ventures and an energy tech startup mentor and investor, explained how integral the relationship between the energy industry and Houston is.

“As the energy system evolves, so does Houston," she says. “I think it’s our opportunity to lose."

The role of corporate incumbents 

Burger's discussion, which took place on Wednesday, spoke to the role of incumbents — corporations that have been operating in the energy industry for decades — in the transition. She explained how the process can't move forward without these parties.

“The incumbents need to be a part of the energy transition. There are parts of our society that don’t want them to be, and I find that unfortunate," she says. "For one, we’re not going to decarbonize the energy system unless they are a part of it. Two, there are a lot of skills and capabilities and assets in the incumbents to do that.

"What I don’t think the incumbents will do is they won’t lead it," she continues. "Many will be leaders in the new energy system, but they won’t be the ones first up the hill.”

Burger compares the energy and the automotive industries. Tesla acted as a disruptor to major auto companies, and then they followed suit. The disruptors and catalysts the energy industry will be a combination of startups, investors, governments, universities, and employee bases.

“We’re not going to throw away the current energy system," she says. "We’re going to evolve it and repurpose it.”

Houston has the ingredients

Tudor addressed the existing infrastructure — from physical pipes to expertise and workforce — that Houston has, which makes for an ideal location for innovation and progress in the transition.

“For a lot of reasons, it’s very clear that unless Houston leans in, we’re not going to find the solutions we need to transition our energy systems to much lower CO2 emissions," he says.

The GHP established the Houston Energy Transition Initiative in 2021 to concentrate Houston efforts within the future of energy. Tudor says this initiative is focused on what can be done now in town — attracting clean energy startups, developing a hydrogen hub, building facilities for green hydrogen production — to lead to a better future.

“We want to look up 20 years from now and find Houston is still — if not more than ever — the energy capital of the world," he says. "We believe that energy systems globally in 20 years will look quite different from how they look today. And that means Houston will look very different from how it looks today."

Burger emphasized some of the challenges — as well as opportunities — the city has considering its long history within the sector.

“Houston has benefitted from a vibrant, strong U.S. energy industry,” she says. “Keeping strong companies and keeping Houston attractive for the energy business is critical.”

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