George McConnell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has received a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. The grant will support McConnell’s research on the processes by which deep brain stimulation treats obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In deep brain stimulation (DBS), electrodes implanted inside the brain deliver tiny electrical impulses that disrupt the firing of neurons, acting as a sort of “brain pacemaker.” Although the technique is FDA-approved as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease and severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the exact mechanisms by which DBS works are not well understood. Elucidating these mechanisms and improving DBS therapies is the focus of McConnell’s brand new Laboratory for NeuroInnovation at Stevens.
Prior to joining the Stevens faculty at the beginning of September, McConnell was a research scientist at Duke University, where he studied DBS in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease.
“This NARSAD grant will enable me to extend my translational research from the neural basis of DBS for Parkinson’s to the neural basis of DBS for psychiatric diseases, starting with OCD,” says McConnell.
NARSAD Young Investigator Grants are awarded to the most promising early-career scientists conducting neurobiological research. This year, 191 scientists from 16 countries were selected from over 700 applicants to receive the grants.
“Dr. McConnell's approach for studying the mechanism by which DBS elicits therapeutic effects for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s provides him with a platform technology that can be applied to psychiatric disorders,” says Peter Tolias, professor and interim director of the department of biomedical engineering, chemistry, and biological sciences. “This support from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation will enable him to explore the mechanisms by which DBS may be used and improved to treat OCD and other neuropsychiatric diseases.”
The new work will use a mouse model of OCD in collaboration with Nicole Calakos and Warren Grill of Duke University. An advantage of studying DBS in animal models, explains McConnell, is that in addition to observing the animals’ behavior (OCD mice persistently groom themselves, for example) researchers can track neural activity using additional implanted microelectrodes. This peek inside the brain allows them to gauge changes in the neural activity that underlie DBS effectiveness.
The overall goal of the project is to tailor the DBS protocol to suppress abnormal neural activity in OCD. While Parkinson’s tremors go away within seconds of DBS, OCD relief requires weeks to months of DBS treatment. McConnell thinks effective OCD treatment may depend on synaptic plasticity—the brain’s mechanism for memory and learning, which involves the strengthening and weakening of connections between neurons. He hopes to design new DBS protocols that can induce beneficial long-term changes in synaptic plasticity using fewer pulses, thereby extending the battery life of DBS devices and potentially minimizing side effects. “Understanding the mechanisms of synaptic plasticity underlying DBS treatment could revolutionize the way clinicians program these devices,” says McConnell.
McConnell considers himself a neural engineer, that is, someone who uses engineering approaches to understand disorders of the brain and then applies this knowledge to design therapeutic devices.
His research on DBS has the potential to help patients in the most desperate straits, including the up to half of OCD patients who do not respond to pharmacological treatment. “The brain fascinates me,” says McConnell, “and the potential for my lab’s research to improve so many lives is a strong motivating force. I’m grateful to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation for their funding support early in my career here at Stevens.”