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The cells of the nervous system are so highly specialized, especially those in the spine and brain, that when damaged by injury or disease the capacities (reading, speaking, walking, remembering, etc.) that resided within the cells are lost. Simply replacing those cells, however, will not repair the damage — the cells must connect with other cells, forming an uninterrupted chain along which commands and sensations can travel.
Great medical advances are underway in the field of neurology and regenerative medicine. The McGowan Institute is working on several approaches to nervous system regeneration, from transplanting mature cells to replace those destroyed by stroke, to pharmacological treatments that help people with brain injuries regain function, to the investigation of stem cells as treatments. We're also working on lab-made guides with microscopic channels that help axons, the long arms of nerve cells, find their way to other nerve cells.
McGowan Institute affiliated faculty member Michel Modo, PhD, conducts extensive research in neurorestorative biology for patients who have suffered brain injury. Of particular focus for him are cerebral ischemia, diseases of neurodegeneration, and exploring the consequences of brain damage. His most recent research efforts are aimed at using non-invasive neuroimaging methods – such as MRI and PET scan – to both image brain damage and to help develop restorative strategies, such as stem cell transplantation, migration, and integration for brain repair. The goal of his approach is to stimulate and/or supplement natural brain repair mechanisms.
Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder, meaning it affects parts of the brain that control body movement (motor function). It leads to shaking (tremors) and difficulty with: walking, talking, and coordination. Parkinson’s disease is one of the most common nervous system disorders among elderly patients and worsens with age. It is most common in people over age 50. Although there is no cure, several treatment options available can help control symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and allow patients to live independently for many years. The clinical specialization of McGowan Institute affiliated faculty member Mark Richardson, MD, PhD, is comprehensive epilepsy surgery and deep brain stimulation (DBS) for movement disorders. DBS delivers electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain that control movement, blocking the nerve signals that cause abnormal movement. DBS gives significant benefit to about 70 percent of people who undergo the procedure.
Modeling work conducted by McGowan Institute affiliated faculty members Matthew Smith, PhD, and Jonathan Rubin, PhD, accounts for temporal and spatial characteristics of neural networks and the correlations in the activity between neurons—whether firing in one neuron is correlated with firing in another. The model is such a substantial improvement that the scientists could use it to predict the behavior of living neurons examined in the area of the brain that processes the visual world. After developing the model, the scientists examined data from the living visual cortex and found that their model accurately predicted the behavior of neurons based on how far apart they were.
In the laboratory of McGowan Institute faculty member Tracy Cui, PhD, the primary research focus is on the interactions between neural tissue and smart biomaterials. Dr. Cui’s research interests lie in neural engineering with special focuses on neural electrode-tissue interface, neural tissue engineering, central nervous system drug delivery, and biosensors.
Developing a prosthetic arm with a brain-computer interface is the challenge faced by McGowan Institute affiliated faculty members Andrew Schwartz, PhD, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, MD, PhD, and Michael Boninger, MD. The way our arms naturally move and interact with the environment around us is due to more than just thinking and moving the right muscles. We differentiate between a piece of cake and a soda can through touch, picking up the cake more gently than the can. The constant feedback we receive from the sense of touch is of paramount importance as it tells the brain where to move and by how much. Through this team’s efforts, paralyzed patients are experiencing movement and touch in clinical trials.