The next generation of neuroscience tools

The next generation of neuroscience tools

By Yewande Okunoren-Oyekenu

Neurological disorders cost the United States about $800 billion every year. It has been estimated that 20 million Americans experience some amount of neuropathy, and 16% of U.S. homes include at least one person suffering from brain impairment. The economic burden of neurological disorders is predicted to increase further between 2011 and 2050 for the elderly population, which is set to double in size, such that dementia and stroke alone are expected to account for at least $600 billion by 2030.

Statistics for common neurological cases. Source: US Pharmacist

For these reasons, researchers are actively trying to curb these diseases—or at least ensure that they are diagnosed as early as possible. In this article, we discuss a few promising technologies, ranging from artificial intelligence-based predictive tools to novel ultrasound-enabled methods to deliver drugs across the blood brain barrier.

Research tools:

Photocleavable protein for visualizing neurotransmitters by the University of Alberta

Robert Campbell, a professor of chemistry at the University of Alberta, has built new tools that will be used by neuroscientists to obtain clearer knowledge of how the brain works by using model organisms like fruit flies, zebrafish, and mice. He has engineered a photocleavable protein that can be used to produce connections between neurons that vary in strength, with the potential for use in human cells as well as whole animals like mice and zebrafish. The claimed advantage of this research is that current methods used in neuroscience are useful in seeing electrical activity in the brain but still fall short of seeing the neurotransmitters. This new technology, based on natural fluorescent proteins like those found in corals and jellyfish, will pave the way for a new dimension in the visualization of neurons and their levels of connection, as they can be used in human cell research.

Diagnostic tools:

Nighres neuroimaging tools

Nighres is an innovation from CBS Tools. This flexible Python toolbox is useful in neuroimaging. It has an advantage over other neuroimaging techniques by providing better spatial and temporal resolution for the laminar analysis and segmentation of cortical MRI data. Achievable techniques include multimodal surface registration and equivolumetric layering.

WINAM by NeuroPro: A tool for epilepsy prediction and EEG biomarker

WINAM uses a patented detection algorithm that is driven by artificial intelligence. The model uses machine learning to optimally predict and detect epileptic seizures and is able to isolate seizure and non-seizure data sets. The test is patient-specific in signal variation and aims to be used just like a headset to help maintain mental health. WINAM claims to be able to handle a large amount of data with little supervision.

Microbubbles for crossing the blood-brain barrier

Evidence that ultrasound can be used to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) in Alzheimer’s disease has been proven with the use of microbubbles by a team at Harquail Centre for Neuromodulation at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Patients have portions of their BBB targeted for safe and reversible opening by a technique that is noninvasive and without side effects. It involves the delivery of microbubbles into the brain of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease patients with the aid of low-frequency, focused ultrasound waves. This technique could potentially replace Alzheimer’s treatments that cannot cross the BBB. The amyloid-rich areas are the target in the patient’s brain, and after the procedure, 24 hours is enough time to seal the BBB again. The technology has successfully completed a Phase 1 clinical trial, and Phase 2 is underway.

On a similar note, researchers from the West Virginia University (WVU) Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute recently announced the treatment of the first Alzheimer’s patient using ultrasound to cross the BBB in a US clinical trial targeting patients with early Alzheimer’s. The researchers are using Insightec’s Exablate Neuro device to temporarily open the BBB in parts of the brain affected by the disease.

Lead neurosurgeon, Dr. Ali Rezai commented on this groundbreaking result stating, “I am hopeful that focused ultrasound opening of the blood-brain barrier will prove to be a valuable treatment option for … patients with early Alzheimer’s who are confronting the enormous challenges associated with the disease on a daily basis.”

Surgical tools:

Modus V, Robotic Digital Microscope by Synaptive Medical

Modus V is a microscope that is robotically controlled for use in surgery. The robotic arm provides efficiency with the aid of advanced optics that produce clear images during surgery. The technology is a recent invention by Synaptive Medical, and it has been used by Florida Hospital Tampa for brain and spine surgeries that require precision and may have been previously tagged as inoperable. It has led to quicker recovery times for patients, in addition to less invasion and fewer complications.

Benefits of new neuroscience tools and future outlook:

The newly developed tools discussed in this article could provide significant advances over conventional approaches for diagnosis and treatment.. For instance, the use of noninvasive techniques to deliver compounds through the BBB will be of great relevance in the near future as therapeutics substances could be directly delivered to the brain.

We are in an era that needs precision medicine, and the ability of WINAM to provide a patient-specific epilepsy prediction device should promote the rapid achievement of individualized diagnoses. The health benefits of having rapid surgery include quicker recovery times and less exposure to current anesthetics, which have been the culprit — directly or indirectly — in the deaths of many patients undergoing surgery, especially neurosurgery that lasts for many hours. The robotic arm of the Modus V device has surely proven that clear images are a contributor to successful neurosurgery. The cost of a neurosurgery falls in the range of $50,000 to millions of dollars due to the price of the operating room, recovery room, and expertise of the operating staff. The Modus V can reduce the number of specialists per patient, making more neurosurgeons available for other patients, as neurosurgery is challenged with having few specialists in the field. Modus V also reduces the number of days spent in the recovery room, hence lower costs and an increase in the availability of inpatient beds.

Due to the tireless efforts of researchers in the field of neuroscience, as reflected in the innovations described in this article, we can start to see great hope for the future of methods to predict, diagnose, and treat neurological disorders. As these advances become clinically available, the current economic burden of neurological disorders could rapidly decline and the mental health of millions of individuals could greatly improve.

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