When is reproducing the effects of traumatic brain injury a good idea? We never thought of asking such a question but, fortunately, researchers at the University of Georgia’s Regenerative Bioscience Center recently did ask such a question and the results are fascinating. By reproducing the effects and stimulating recovery in neuron cells grown in a petri dish, assistant professor Lohitash Karumbaiah and his team hope to prove that electrical stimulation is a clinically translatable approach for recovery from traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Most neurons in the central nervous system cannot repair or renew themselves. This makes them different from other cells in the body. Karumbiaiah’s team is the first known scientific team in the country to use stem cell-derived neurons to recreate a traumatic brain injury and influence recovery by electric stimulation. Here’s how they did it:
They started with a petri dish containing dozens of minute electrodes. Then, they introduced glutamate, an agent that is released in high amounts in the brain after traumatic injury. This created a concussion-like disruption of neural activity. After evaluating this activity, they influenced recovery by electrical stimulation.
According to Karumbaiah, once the neurons reached a certain level of density in the dish, his team was able to see what he calls “synchronous activity in a very timed manner.” This means they were able to recreate synchronized, brain-like activity in a dish. By disrupting that rhythm, they could learn how to recover from something like that.
Parkinson’s disease is already treatable by electric stimulation. An electrical stimulation cap, worn continuously by Parkinson’s patients, was approved by the FDA in 2015. Karumbaiah and his team hope to bring their findings to collaborators who will help them tailor electrical stimulation approaches with biomaterials that can exploit neuroplasticity.
Here is an example of how this can be beneficial. Many veterans suffer from TBIs incurred through shock waves from explosions. There is no physical focal point of injury. Rather than submit to invasive surgery, these patients might benefit from a wearable device that can administer fairly controlled levels of electrical stimulation.
This type of device, whether designed for implantation or wearable use, must be small and power-efficient. Through smart design and the application of stimulatory regimens, power consumption can be minimalized. Maysam Ghovanloo, a colleague of Karumbaiah, is one of those responsible for the Tongue-Drive System, which allows individuals with spinal cord injuries to control their wheelchair or digital devices by moving their tongue. His work with neural interfacing and implantable medical devices should prove key to developing the devices foreseen by Karumbaiah and his team.