Engineering New Treatments

Scientists cross disciplines to develop an implantable device to prevent and treat brain diseases.

Advancements in neurosurgery are leading to less invasive procedures—and Penn State scientists are paving the way. As a pediatric neurosurgeon, Steven Schiff has spent a large part of his career treating diseases of the brain in children. Now, in a research capacity as Brush Chair Professor of Engineering and Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics, Neurosurgery, and Physics, Schiff is joining forces with colleagues across and outside of Penn State to redefine the future of neuroscience.

Schiff, who also leads the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering, is collaborating with Srinivas Tadigadapa, an electrical engineering colleague formerly of Penn State, to bridge the gap between the fields of neurosurgery and engineering to develop innovative ways to study, treat, and manage brain disorders and diseases. As part this research, Schiff, Tadigadapa, and their colleagues are developing a tiny magnetic device that can interact with and measure brain cells without physically penetrating the brain—a technology never before available in the medical field.

Left: two researchers walk through a lab. Right: plastic disk with coils of copper wire.

Left: Electrical engineer Srinivas Tadigadapa and neurosurgeon Steve Schiff have joined forces to create a tiny magnetic device that can interact with brain cells without physically penetrating the brain. Right: Helmholtz coils made of copper wire apply a magnetic field to a small magnetoelectric magnetometer to calibrate it. The magnetometer senses magetic fields, this one is designed to detect the fields generated by neurons in the brain. Images: Patrick Mansell

“Imagine you are trying to run an artificial hand,” says Schiff. “You want to pick up signals from the hand area of the cortex to give you the intention of the individual to move such a hand. We can only do that now by implanting arrays of electrodes into the hand area of the brain itself.”

The microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) allow miniaturization of devices that can sense and stimulate nerve cells, some of which the team hopes will one day be implanted into the human skull in order to explore the brain on a cell-by-cell basis.

The MEMS device Schiff and his colleagues are developing will lessen the side effects and risks associated with traditional brain cell monitoring systems, and it has the potential to help patients with a range of neurological problems including spinal cord injuries, ALS, stroke, and such cognitive disorders as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“This is a way to potentially not only sense from a part of the brain that makes seizures, but to modulate the activity to prevent seizures.”

In particular, Schiff and many of his colleagues at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center are excited about the potential of this new technology to help the more than 2.5 million Americans living with epilepsy.

“I’ve worked in epilepsy for most of my career,” Schiff continues. “This is a way to potentially not only sense from a part of the brain that makes seizures, but to modulate the activity to prevent seizures.”

The project is funded by the National Institutes of Health through the BRAIN Initiative, a program launched in 2013 by President Barack Obama to accelerate the development and application of new technologies to investigate how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact.

According to Schiff, Penn State’s vast network of expertise and position as a top 20 research university has helped amplify the reach and impact of the project.

“As a physician, you start out in your career wanting to help every patient you personally see and treat,” Schiff said. “I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of opportunities, many of which are because of Penn State, to do projects that can help tens or hundreds of thousands of patients.”

For Schiff, one of the greatest opportunities Penn State provides is the ability to bring many diverse and novel perspectives together to address research topics and problems.

“There’s a culture of collaboration here. It’s a culture willing to listen to people from other disciplines and come up with solutions to problems that sound like they’re worth your time,” Schiff said. “Since starting here twelve years ago, I’ve never proposed working on something that sounded important and not gotten an overwhelming response from those around me.”

A sample under a microscope.

The living sample allows researchers to understand the strength of signals coming from individual brain cells and the magnetic field strength necessary to influence those cells. Image: Patrick Mansell

In addition to helping patients with neurological disorders, Schiff says this interdisciplinary research approach can have profound impact across the medical field.

“There are a great deal of benefits from the work that we do—better ways of treating things like epilepsy and migraines, better infant healthcare and learning how to treat and manage infants with hydrocephalus,” Schiff said. “We’re also coming up with technologies to not only reduce our healthcare costs but make it more accessible.”

It’s an ambitious project, but their progress so far makes Schiff optimistic that they will have a working implantable MEMS device in the near future—and that it will offer patients, and their doctors, something that has not been available to them before.

“As a society, we need to learn how to recast the way we practice medicine in ways that are extremely efficient with the money we have,” Schiff said. “That's not the way we’ve gone about designing medical care in the past, but at Penn State, we can do a very good job given the range of expertise and the interest in solving impactful problems.”