Research & Innovation

Stevens Engineers Take a Leap into the Brain with $2 Million NSF LEAP-HI Grant

Collaborative project explores the biomechanics of the brain to help understand, diagnose, treat and even prevent neurological injuries and diseases

abstract brain imaging illustration

When you seek medical attention for a sore throat or broken leg or stomachache, your doctor is likely to touch what is bothering you to help determine what’s wrong and how to treat it. But what happens when the physical ailment is literally in your head?

Although feeling your brain is still not a viable diagnostic tool, researchers from Stevens Institute of Technology, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Carnegie Mellon University are teaming up to explore the next best thing. Thanks to a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), these investigators are combining novel medical imaging, computational modeling, machine learning, multi-disciplinary analysis, and mechanical testing to create personalized, computerized brain models to better understand brain diseases and injuries.

'Traditional' mechanical engineering: No longer traditional

The collaborative project, “LEAP-HI: Tackling Brain Diseases with Mechanics: A Data-Driven Approach to Merge Advanced Neuroimaging and Multi-Physics Modeling,” is intended to investigate the relationship between biomechanics and issues including as stroke, traumatic brain injury, and dementia. By gaining a better understanding of the fundamental mechanical properties of living brain tissues, the researchers intend to develop the framework to explore and inform the causes, effects, diagnosis, treatment, and even prevention of prevalent yet still puzzling neurological issues.

Led by Mehmet Kurt, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stevens and founding director of the Center for Neuromechanics, the team also includes Johannes Weickenmeier, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stevens; Priti Balchandani, associate professor of radiology and director of neuroimaging research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Jessica Zhang, George Tallman Ladd and Florence Barrett Ladd professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University.

“The brain is a challenging organ to study because it's encapsulated inside our skulls, so it’s hard to access, it's hard to image, and you can't touch it,” Kurt said. “But evidence has shown that probing the mechanics of the brain can be useful in explaining a lot of disease processes. This proposal seeks to solve this challenge by bringing together powerful modern technology and a team with expertise in diverse disciplines: Dr. Balchandani is an imaging expert, Dr. Weickenmeier is on the modeling side, I'm the bridge between imaging and modeling components, and Dr. Zhang integrates imaging datasets into computational modeling.”

The LEAP-HI project marks the latest in the successful longstanding and productive collaboration among scientists at multiple institutions.

“This interdisciplinary project explores the brain in a multifaceted way and reveals correlations between mathematical modeling and in vivo measures,” Balchandani said. “It’s exciting to be correlating ultrahigh field MRI with biomechanical and mathematical models of the brain. Connecting engineering, computer science, and medicine in this way can yield highly innovative solutions that may transform clinical care.”

With such a robust variety of expertise, the project’s many hurdles will include even the basics of finding a common language for clear communications. But even in this daunting challenge, the team sees the bigger picture.

“Once we find that common language,” Kurt said, “it can potentially transcend our project and be helpful for many other collaboration opportunities in other fields. Traditional mechanical engineering certainly isn’t traditional anymore!”

Mechanical engineers working on understanding the brain, which is typically associated with areas such as biology, genetics, electrophysiology, or chemistry, may be unexpected, but it’s a breakthrough approach with the potential to reduce the financial burden of healthcare and, more important, change millions of lives for the better.

“Mechanics is an untapped key resource in understanding how the brain works,” Weickenmeier said. “For example, for me as an engineer, modeling means I'm trying to formalize mathematically what a disease does to the structure of the brain. Alzheimer's disease affects the brain in many unique ways, yet can’t be definitely diagnosed until after death when we have access to brain tissues for pathology. I try to model structural changes by finding the mathematical equations that can describe characteristic shape changes due to neurodegeneration, then solving them on the computer with realistic geometry to simulate that volume change. Ideally, that could help make diagnosis more accurate at earlier time points such that we influence the trajectory of how it’s treated.”

Similarly, this work could help manufacturers develop better helmets to prevent traumatic brain injury, and help coaches make better sideline decisions during games based on the level of damage a player experiences.

“We’re trying to imagine a kind of futuristic world,” Kurt said, “where instead of looking at a radiography image such as a CT scan or an X-ray or MRI image, doctors would look at a computer simulation to make clinical decisions.”

Engaging a broader community to think about the biomechanics of the brain

“Our project demonstrates interdisciplinary collaboration, integrating mechanical engineering, mathematics, computer science, and medicine through the development of novel numerical methods of image processing, geometric modeling, isogeometric analysis, and data-driven simulation,” Zhang said. “We also hope to attract and warmly welcome more females and minorities to join us.”

The project will also involve educational and outreach activities designed to inform the public, educators, and students on the topic of neuromechanics. It’s one more way the team is leveraging its gifts to give back to others.

“I started as a traditional mechanical engineer, and my Ph.D. involved working on vibrations,” Kurt said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to use the principles of mechanics for human health. Even when I started my post-doctoral studies at Stanford in the field of concussions, though, I couldn't convince myself whether I was going to have an impact, because it was something that almost nobody had done. Launching our Center for Neuromechanics last year was an exciting and groundbreaking step. I'm happy to see that now other peers in this field are also thinking and agreeing, as evidenced with this grant, that this line of research could be helpful in understanding arguably one of our most important organs, the human brain, and mitigating the enormous societal burden related to issues within the brain.”

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