Research & Innovation

Mehmet Kurt and Johannes Weickenmeier Receive $2 Million NSF Grant

Mehmet Kurt and Johannes Weickenmeier

Mehmet Kurt, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, was recently awarded a grant of $2 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

This grant, the largest Stevens has received from the NSF in recent history, will fund a collaborative project with co-PIs Johannes Weickenmeier from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Priti Balchandani from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Jessica Zhang from Carnegie Mellon University. Their project, entitled “LEAP-HI: Tackling Brain Diseases with Mechanics: A Data-Driven Approach to Merge Advanced Neuroimaging and Multi-Physics Modeling,” will combine novel medical imaging methods, image analysis, computational modeling, and mechanical testing to determine the fundamental mechanical properties of living brain tissues and the differences in properties between healthy and diseased tissues.

The proposed work may enable the early diagnosis and prevention of neurological disorders, such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, and dementia. As such, the project has the potential to reduce the financial burden on society and increase the quality of life for millions of people. Outreach activities in brain mechanics will be provided for underrepresented groups in science and engineering, as well as training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers.

"As the founding director of Center for Neuromechanics, I believe that this grant will help our center's ultimate goal of creating collaborative bridges between different interdisciplinary groups to advance our knowledge of brain biomechanics," Kurt said. "Our Mechanical Engineering Department has a growing biomechanics-core with extremely talented faculty members representing a wide range of fields of expertise within biomechanical engineering. This NSF LEAP HI grant will serve to strengthen this biomechanics core within our department."

The research will provide a novel platform for investigating the mechanobiology of the human brain in health and disease. The research team will develop a novel approach to merge advanced neuroimaging tools and multi-physics brain modeling into a semi-automated pipeline for the in vivo investigation of brain mechanics.

"My lab at Stevens (Kurtlab) work on understanding the fundamental biomechanics of the brain through a combination of novel imaging techniques and computational modeling," Kurt said. "Our lab has as a particular interest in understanding the biomechanics of traumatic brain injury (TBI), which is the leading cause of death and disability among children and young adults in the United States." 

Ultrahigh field magnetic resonance imaging technology merged with automated imaging-modeling integration will be utilized to enable the subject-specific investigation of brain mechanics across disparate spatio-temporal scales. Specifically, ultrahigh resolution mechanical, structural, and connectomic neuroimaging tools will be developed and integrated with automatic brain segmentation and mesh generation for finite element and isogeometric analysis to create multi-scale brain mechanics computer models.

These tools will then be utilized to provide an in-depth characterization of the mechanobiochemical response of traumatic brain injury, in decompressive craniectomies for stroke patients, and the coupling between prion-like protein progression and cerebral atrophy in dementia.

"In the field of TBI biomechanics, there has been a lack of human data to confirm the human concussion mechanism," Mehmet said. "The datasets acquired throughout our work will be extremely helpful to test brain injury mechanism hypotheses and hopefully imrpove human injury prediction. For instance, fast and computerized screening of brain’s mechanical response with real-time head kinematic sensors data during contact sports would revolutionize the clinical paradigm for managing concussions by being able to make informed return-to-play decisions."

By developing a pipeline for the creation of personalized, data-driven brain models, the research team will demonstrate the transformative power of combined imaging, modeling, and machine learning techniques toward better understanding, improved treatment, and ultimately preventive medicine for neurological disorders.

"My ultimate goal as a researcher is to leverage advanced engineering methods, such as multiphysics disease modeling and personalized simulations, towards discovering the role of mechanics on the mechanisms associated with the onset and progression of brain diseases," Weickenmeier said. "In the long-term this will allow us to develop better diagnostic tools, create new treatment options, and, ideally, even to cure brain diseases altogether."

"As a young faculty member, I am excited to be leading this collaborative effort," Mehmet said, "which I hope will have a significant impact to the field of biomechanics by tackling this problem from multiple interdisciplinary angles. I am thrilled to be working with all the co-PIs and their corresponding teams in this work over the next 5 years (and hopefully even longer)!"

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