New center will focus on restoring brain function after disease or injury.
The new Center for Translational Neural Prosthetics and Interfaces, a partnership to advance the future of neurosurgery, brings together scientists, clinicians, engineers and surgeons to solve clinical problems with neurorobotics.
“This center will be a human laboratory where all of us — neurosurgeons, neuroengineers, neurobiologists — can work together to solve biomedical problems in the brain and spinal cord,” said co-director Dr. Gavin Britz, chair of the Houston Methodist Department of Neurosurgery. “And it’s a collaboration that can finally offer some hope and options for the millions of people worldwide who suffer from brain diseases and injuries.” Houston Methodist neurosurgeons, seven engineers from the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative, and additional physicians and faculty from both institutions form the center’s core team. Key focus areas include spinal cord injury, memory and epilepsy studies, and cortical motor/sensation conditions.
“The Rice Neuroengineering Initiative was formed with this type of partnership in mind,” said center co-director Behnaam Azhang, Rice’s J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Azhang also directs the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative, which launched in 2018 to bring together the brightest minds in neuroscience, engineering and related fields to improve lives by restoring and extending the capabilities of the human brain.
This center will be a human laboratory where all of us — neurosurgeons, neuroengineers, neurobiologists — can work together to solve biomedical problems in the brain and spinal cord.
The physical space for the center’s operation includes more than 25,000 square feet of Rice Neuroengineering Initiative laboratories and experimental spaces in the university’s BioScience Research Collaborative, as well as an extensive build-out underway at Houston Methodist’s West Pavilion location. The Houston Methodist facility will include operating rooms and a laboratory where ongoing patient/volunteer diagnosis and assessment, device fabrication and testing, and education and training opportunities are planned.
“This partnership is a perfect blend of talent,” said Rice’s Marcia O’Malley, a core member of both the new center and university initiative and the Thomas Michael Panos Family Professor in Mechanical Engineering. “We will be able to design studies to test the efficacy of inventions and therapies and rely on patients and volunteers who want to help us test our ideas. The possibilities are limitless.”
While the Houston Methodist space is being built, collaborations are already underway between the two institutions, which sit across Main Street from one another in the Texas Medical Center.
Among them are the following:
O’Malley and Houston Methodist’s Dr. Dimitry Sayenko, assistant professor of neurosurgery, will head the first pilot project involving the merging of two technologies to restore hand function following a spinal cord injury or stroke. O’Malley will pair the upper limb exoskeleton she invented with Sayenko’s noninvasive stimulator designed to wake up the spinal cord.
Rice neuroengineer Lan Luan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Britz, a neurosurgeon, are collaborating on a study to measure neurovascular response following a life-threatening stroke caused by bleeding just outside the brain. Two-thirds of people who suffer these brain bleeds either die or end up with permanent disabilities.
Azhang, Britz and Taiyun Chi, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice, are collaborating on the detection of mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI) from multimodal observations and on alleviating mTBI using neuromodulations. — Jade Boyd