URI engineering professor awarded $6 million grant for biomedical research

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KINGSTON, R.I. – September 3, 2015 – An engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island has been awarded a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to lead an interdisciplinary consortium of scientists to create brain imaging and modulation technologies that will provide insight into how the nervous system functions in health and disease.

Walt Besio, URI associate professor of biomedical engineering, and colleagues from institutions in Kentucky and Oklahoma will collaborate on the development of innovative tools to image, sense and record brain function and deliver stimuli to the brain to treat neurological diseases like epilepsy, stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

“We’re going to create a portable integrated system to get electrical and neurovascular activity from the brain. The system will allow researchers to conduct experiments that until now have not been easy to do,” said Besio, who invented a patented tripolar concentric ring electrode sensor for detecting brain signals that will be the basis of the new research.

Besio envisions creating a cap-like headpiece that incorporates dozens or even hundreds of electrodes with integrated light sources and detectors that can be worn by patients with little preparation to record brain signals that currently require the use of an MRI chamber.

“Instead of requiring a big room and a chamber to lay down in, patients will be able to walk around with it on their heads,” he explained. “It will be an inexpensive, non-invasive, portable system that allows researchers to monitor the electrical and neurovascular activity from the brain and at the same time inject electrical signals to alter the brain state if necessary.”

The URI scientists will focus on development of the hardware for the new system, while the Kentucky and Oklahoma teams will develop algorithms and explore applications that could benefit from the project.

According to Besio, scientists and clinicians are hampered by the low resolution and low signal-to-noise ratio of currently available electroenecephalography (EEG) systems for recording brain signals. Further, there are no integrated systems for recording the brain’s electrical and neurovascular activities together. The system he expects to develop will solve these problems and enable researchers to investigate issues they are unable to study today.

In addition to detecting and treating neurological diseases, he envisions the system being used in brain-computer interface research to help paralyzed individuals control a computer, wheelchair, robots or other systems with their thoughts. It could also be used to monitor brain activity during cardiac surgery to ensure blood is flowing properly to the brain. An early version of the tripolar concentric ring electrode sensor EEG system is already being tested at Rhode Island Hospital, Stanford Medical Center and the National Institute of Neurology and Neurosurgery in Mexico City to improve the diagnosis of epilepsy.

“By the time we develop this instrumentation, we will be able to do research that nobody else can do,” said Besio.

The funding comes from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which fosters research collaborations and increases competitiveness in research and development to build a more capable workforce. The URI grant was one of eight awards selected from 60 proposals.

In addition to funding the research, the grant aims to advance the careers of junior faculty, so URI Assistant Professors Stephen Kennedy and Kunal Mankodiya will be among the collaborators on the project. In addition, Besio expects to hire a post-doctoral researcher and engage two doctoral students.