Smart Brain | Villanova Magazine
Summer 2019

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A blue photo-illustration of a brain, highlighting its crevices in light blue

Villanova Engineering professor works with a team of scientists to outsmart traumatic brain injury with new “smart brain” technology

BY VALERIE NEFF NEWITT

A scientific milestone rests on the worktop in Villanova’s Cellular Biomechanics and Sports Science Laboratory in White Hall: a highly instrumented, first-of-its-kind “smart brain.” Separated from its transparent skull by a thin layer of fluid, the deeply creviced pink gel mold mimics the physiological makeup of the human brain.

Though it stops short of actually thinking, the smart brain holds important implications for research, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of traumatic brain injury (TBI). Inventor Qianhong Wu, PhD, director of the laboratory and associate professor of Mechanical Engineering, and his collaborators received a patent for this new technology in December 2018.

With it, they hope to advance fundamental understanding of how the human brain works and provide unprecedented access to its inner workings. Dr. Wu compares the technology to the black box recorder on an airplane. “When a plane goes down, officials know there has been an incident—but why it happened is discovered only when the black box is recovered,” he says. “Similarly, the smart brain can give us a better understanding of why a brain injury occurred.”

Equipped with high-speed cameras, accelerometers, and displacement and pressure sensors, the smart brain can record hard data pertaining to various types of impact, the actions they prompt and the injuries they cause in the brain. “Prevailing technology looks at the skull and brain as a whole, but we were determined to show what happens to the brain itself upon impact—something no one has done previously,” Dr. Wu explains.

“We’ve always known impact causes damage, but we’d never seen the mechanism that lies between the two,” he says. It was precisely this “between the lines” mystery that has eluded foundational science pertaining to TBI until now.

Dr. Qianhong Wu and PhD student Ji Lang wearing white lab coats testing the smart brain model in the lab

Dr. Qianhong Wu and doctoral candidate Ji Lang test their smart brain apparatus in the laboratory.

PHOTOS: PAUL CRANE

Making the Smart Brain

Finding the right materials for the model was the biggest challenge, according to Ji Lang, a doctoral candidate in Mechanical Engineering who’s been working with Dr. Wu since 2016. The two collaborated to build the technology with a multidisciplinary team of scientists who have expertise in fluid mechanics, materials, instrumentation and manufacturing.

They experimented with many different materials and made many brains. Finally, the smart brain took form—with design input from Kei-Peng Jen, PhD, a retired Villanova associate professor; Chris Townend, laboratory manager for the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Rungun Nathan, PhD, associate professor and chair of Engineering at Penn State Berks, who previously taught at Villanova.

Watch this playlist to learn more about the smart brain and its implications for research and treatment of brain injury

The team incorporated 3D printing to form a shape from which to cast a brain mold. Using CT scans for reference, they settled on hydrogel as the material of choice for the brain because it best captures the soft, squishy nature of anatomical matter in terms of elasticity and density. In crafting the shape of the skull, the CT scans again proved useful. “The skull alone required two months to develop the correct shape and transparency,” Ji says. “After all, we couldn’t just go out and buy one. We had to develop the machinery to make it.”

Ji was critical to that process, Dr. Wu says. He is one of six doctoral candidates in the Mechanical Engineering department who work with Dr. Wu in the Cellular Biomechanics and Sports Science Laboratory. Director of the Mechanical Engineering graduate programs, Dr. Wu sees his students as collaborators rather than simply trainees.

“We work toward a meeting of the minds, and inspire each other to come up with our best ideas,” Dr. Wu says. “I don’t say, ‘This is my idea, now do it.’ I want students to be motivated to pursue critical thinking.”

Another of Dr. Wu’s PhD students, Jennifer Muller, also plays an important role in the smart brain project—in the clinic rather than the lab. She is working with clinicians and researchers at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia to validate the model’s findings and demonstrate the utility of the work in TBI treatment.

The skull alone required two months to develop the correct shape and transparency. After all, we couldn’t just go out and buy one. We had to develop the machinery to make it.”

Ji Lang, PhD candidate

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT

Headshot of Dr. Qianhong Wu wearing glasses and a blue dress shirt unbuttoned, smiling

PHOTO: JOHN SHETRON

A Way into the Brain

Ftrained in biofluid mechanics, Dr. Qianhong Wu sees his smart brain as “a new adventure” in brain biomechanics that began when he attended Villanova Law’s 2013 Moorad Sports Law Journal Symposium. “Concussion Conundrum” explored key issues among players, teams, leagues, doctors and lawyers regarding head and brain injuries.

Coincidentally, about that time, Dr. Wu took his car to be serviced and began talking to a station employee who had played football for years. “He was very obviously having cognitive difficulties and was confused. He told me he hadn’t realized how important protective headgear was, and he had no idea how many concussions he’d suffered,” Dr. Wu says. “I realized right then that this happens to a lot of people, and as a scientist and engineer, I could do something to help with this issue.”

That desire to make a difference eventually morphed into the smart brain for which he holds high hopes. Dr. Wu envisions the technology as a launching pad for the creation of a preeminent center at Villanova University for the advancement of fundamental brain biomechanics research, identification of all manner of impact relating to TBI, and the capacity for state-of-the-art testing and design of protective headgear. The end game? Prevention of life-altering brain injuries.

Dr. Wu and his team applied for a second patent in January 2019, which, if approved, will take his work on TBI much deeper. “We have come up with new ideas and have continued to improve our approaches,” he says. “The work we are doing can affect people’s lives in a very real and positive way. We’ve come too far to stop now.”

Close-up view of hammer preparing to make impact with bright-pink smart brain model

PHOTO: PAUL CRANE

From Lab Research to Clinical Findings

According to the Brain Injury Association, a brain injury occurs in the US every nine seconds, and at least 2.5 million people sustain a TBI every year. One of every 60 Americans lives with a TBI-related disability, ranging from sight, hearing and/or memory loss, to depression and cognitive impairments.

“Until now there has been no proactive way to determine how these TBIs occur,” Dr. Wu says. “Most work has been computational, lacking experiential verification. There has been no reallife way to validate computational findings.” That’s exactly what he and Jennifer are hoping to do in their work with Jefferson neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, MD, professor of Integrative Medicine and Nutritional Sciences, and Feroze Mohamed, PhD, director of Jefferson Integrated Magnetic Resonance Imaging Center.

“This collaboration is translational in terms of combining the work that Dr. Wu is doing in his laboratory and incorporating those ideas and findings into clinical research,” Dr. Newberg says. “Specifically, we can look inside the brains of people with head injuries and determine how their brains’ structures and functions are affected, and Dr. Wu’s modeling helps us to understand that.”

We can look inside the brains of people with head injuries and determine how their brains’ structures and functions are affected, and Dr. Wu’s modeling helps us to understand that.”

Dr. Andrew Newberg

While Drs. Newberg and Mohamed have been scanning brain injury subjects, Jennifer has been scanning normal control subjects, then looking for differences between the control and injured brains in specific regions based on Dr. Wu’s analysis. “Dr. Wu’s lab looks at brain biomechanics from a purely engineering perspective, whereas Jefferson offers some anatomical information from real subject data,” Jennifer says.

The ability to pinpoint the exact cause and precise position of brain injury will be the climax of this trailblazing translation. Such a specific focus eventually may allow treating physicians to use more targeted imaging, yielding more specific and personalized information. “Medicine in general is subjective and qualitative; it is not an exact science. But here we are trying to make it quantitative and develop quantitative biomarkers for the status of the brain,” Dr. Mohamed says.

Dr. Wu hopes to provide doctors with a guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of concussive and subconcussive injury, and to inform the design of different types of protective helmets, not just for athletes, but also for construction workers, military personnel, and bike and motorcycle riders. “Caring is at the very heart of Villanova,” he says. “We are doing something meaningful here that will help improve the lives of many people. That is something of which I am truly proud.” ◼︎

A series of black and white MRI scans

Left: Villanova PhD student Jennifer Muller works with doctors at Jefferson Hospital to collect neuroimaging data and validate the model's findings. Right: The project required multidisciplinary expertise with design input and support from Rungun Nathan, PhD, associate professor and chair of Engineering at Penn State Berks, who previously taught at Villanova; Dr. Wu; Sridhar Santhanam, PhD, professor and chair, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Villanova PhD student Ji Lang; and Chris Townend, laboratory manager for the Department of Mechanical Engineering (not pictured).

PHOTOS: JOHN WELSH AND PAUL CRANE

PROJECT IMPACT

One question, four perspectives:

How could this technology help patients in the future?

Headshot of Dr. Feroze Mohamed in a suit jacket

Developed using real anatomical data, these mathematical models could help us to understand how the brain functions even better.”

Feroze Mohamed, PhD

Jefferson Integrated Magnetic Resonance Imaging Center

Headshot of PhD student Jennifer Muller wearing a blazer and ponytail

This technology could help us understand anatomically where and how changes in the brain are related to TBI symptoms.”

Jennifer Muller, PhD student

Department of Mechanical Engineering, Villanova University

Headshot of Dr. Andrew Newberg wearing glasses and a blue dress shirt

It could help us pinpoint areas of the brain that are affected (by an injury) and determine which therapeutic approaches seem to have an effect.”

Andrew Newberg, MD

Jefferson Hospital
of Neuroscience

Headshot of PhD student Ji Lang wearing glasses in a white lab coat

With this information, doctors could much more quickly and accurately distinguish the position, type and extent of the injury.”

Ji Lang, PhD student

Department of Mechanical, Engineering, Villanova University

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