Collaborative Efforts

potential Projects

Neural modulation and the control of skeletal health and brain/skeletal signaling after injury

The Horner Laboratory uses epidural and peripheral nerve multielectrode arrays to promote spinal and cortical circuit plasticity in models of spinal cord injury. Combined with transplantation of engineered excitatory neurons, neuromodulation offers hope of creating functional pathways to restore locomotion after stroke or injury. A seminal new concept being explored to address dysfunction of the musculoskeletal system that typically accompanies brain and spinal cord damage is the alteration of autonomic control of bone microenvironment.

Research in the Elefteriou laboratory indicates that sympathetic input to bone cells is critical for growth and maintenance. Further, there is an evolving understanding of a network of brain-stem neurokines that promote bone remodeling and a reciprocal network of bone-derived hormones that impact brain health. This project seeks to model how motor and/or autonomic neuromodulation effects bone remodeling in the brain and bone hormone network. The Horner and Elefteriou laboratories will collaborate to measure bone marrow activation, bone signaling, and central neural signals that change due to neuromodulation in a model of spinal cord injury.

Biomimetic nanoparticles to promote neural connectivity

This project combines human pluripotent stem cell-derived neural cell types (Krencik Laboratory) with lipid-based nanoparticles (Taraballi Laboratory) to yield novel biomimetic nanoparticles that can target and deliver functional payloads to the brain and promote neuronal synapse formation post-injury. These nanoparticles will be validated using an in vitro human organoid culture platform during physiological recordings. Furthermore, biodistribution of nanoparticles will be assessed within animal models. The new tool set produced in this project will have high potential to translate into a brain delivery system, and it overcomes current limitations of cellular transplantation-based therapy.

Defining the functional consequence of astrocyte activity upon neural networks

Astrocytes are highly abundant throughout the nervous system, yet their dynamic contributions to neural network activity are still not well understood. This project manipulates astrocyte activity and assesses the consequence upon synaptic physiology. Baseline neural spike frequencies will be measured within human pluripotent stem cell-derived organoids over time on multielectrode arrays, and the consequence of astrocyte activation will be assessed after chemogenetic activation as well as over expression of master gliogenic transcriptional regulators (Krencik Laboratory).

In parallel, astrocyte states will be manipulated, using transgenic mouse models, and similar physiological measurements will be conducted (Deneen Laboratory). Astrocytes in both models will be profiled with RNA sequencing to uncover potential mechanisms underlying astrocyte activity-induced neuronal communication. It is expected that high priority intercellular signaling pathways will be identified to translate into preclinical testing regarding restoring normative function that is dysregulated in inflammatory environments post-injury and post-disease.

Manipulation of RNA compartmentalization to facilitate regenerative responses

Spatiotemporal gene expression varies in cell types and specifies differential physiological function. However, how the transcriptome is compartmentalized in subcellular domains for axon maintenance, presynaptic plasticity and injury response remains unclear. In this project, the roles of RNA modifications underpinning RNA subcellular localization will systematically be revealed and de novo spatial gene expression patterns associated with regenerative capacity will be identified (Weng Laboratory).

Top candidates will be manipulated in mouse spinal cord injury models to assess their function in promoting axon regeneration (Horner Laboratory). Data gained from this systematic analysis and functional validation will offer new opportunities for the development of effective RNA therapy and treatment strategies for spinal cord and brain injury.

Spinal neuromodulation and recovery of bladder control after injury

The Sayenko Laboratory pursues the questions regarding the extent to which electrical spinal cord stimulation can neuromodulate spinal circuitry to recover motor and autonomic functions. Epidural and transcutaneous electrical spinal cord stimulation techniques are becoming more valuable as electrophysiological and clinical tools. Dimitry Sayenko, MD, PhD investigated the level of neurophysiological and functional specificity that can be achieved in selective neuromodulation of spinal networks using both methods. Rose Khavari, MD’s research efforts have led to the development of a unique and detailed functional imaging protocol that is combined with urodynamic testing, which pinpoints structural and functional brain control of bladder function.

This project will combine advanced neuroimaging approaches, urodynamics, and non-invasive spinal neuromodulation to identify the patterns of supraspinal-spinal activation and connectivity during the initiation, maintenance, and completion of voiding (or attempt of voiding) in intact, or paralyzed due to spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis, subjects and to elucidate the neuromodulatory mechanisms of spinal stimulation on bladder control. The central hypothesis is that neural activation profiles can be used to selectively target specific regions within the central nervous system using spinal neuromodulation. Thus, the spinal and supraspinal effects of transcutaneous spinal stimulation on voiding will be examined.

Modulating the gut microbiome to reduce neurodegeneration

The Villapol Laboratory has established a research program that studies the brain-gut microbiome axis and its interactions in response to a disease. They combine techniques specific to neuropathological analysis, identification of central or peripheral markers of inflammation, bioinformatic characterization of microbial diversity and strain-level analysis, and the administration of probiotics to modulate the gut microbiome.

The laboratory of Dr. Jeannie Chin is devoted to characterizing patterns of brain activity in mice and correlated neuronal activity with performance in behavioral paradigms that test different aspects of memory and cognition, especially using animal models of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Furthermore, the relationship between the microbiome and the development of cognitive impairment in dementia or the development of AD is unknown. This project will deplete the microbiome in AD animals and will restore it with the pre-AD microbiome. Specifically, the Villapol and Chin laboratories will identify the link between the modulation of the microbiome in AD mice and brain connectivity, amyloid beta accumulation, and memory impairment, with the goal of identifying novel treatments to restore cognition and behavior in neurodegenerative diseases.

Current Projects

Sajedeh Nasr, PhD

Sajedeh Nasr Esfahani, PhD was selected as the inaugural NIH-funded postdoctoral fellow in our NeuralCODR postdoctoral training program for her project developing cell-based therapeutics to improve neuron reconnectivity after various nervous system injuries. As a NeuralCODR trainee, her primary mentor is Robert C. Krencik, PhD (Neural Development and Tools), her secondary mentor is Mary C. "Cindy" Farach-Carson, PhD (Neural Innervation and Organ Engineering), and her clinical mentor is Amir Faraji, MD, PhD. Her project titled “Generating and Validating Astrocyte-Inspired Functionalized Hydrogels to Promote Synaptic Regeneration” addresses the lack of bioengineering strategies to promote neuroregeneration in the human central and peripheral nervous system. Dr. Nasr is developing methods to use alginate hydrogels to stably encapsulate human astrocytes and permit the secretion of proteins for the repair of either the injured central nervous system or the injured peripheral nervous system.

Laura Montier, PhD

Laura Montier's current work examines changes in mitochondrial regulation in response to therapeutic stimulation after spinal cord injury. Her primary mentor is Philip Horner, PhD (Nervous System and Peripheral Organ Disorders). Her secondary mentor is Shu-hsia Chen, PhD (Nervous System and Peripheral Organ Disorders) and her clinical mentor is Dimitry Sayenko, MD, PhD. Dr. Montier's project uses neurostimulation after injury of the spinal cord to overcome the harmful effects of neuroinflammation and restore axonal projections and synapse organization to regain lost motor skill function. Her study aims to address the timing of mitochondrial turnover after neurostimulation to meet the increased energy demands for neuronal growth in an inflammatory environment.

Sirena Soriano, PhD

Sirena Soriano is investigating the role that the gut microbiota plays in the link between traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer's disease. Dr. Soriano's primary mentor is Sonia Villapol, PhD (Nervous System and Peripheral Organ Disorders). Her secondary mentor is Muralidhar Hegde, PhD (Nervous System and Peripheral Organ Disorders) and her clinical mentor is Eamonn Quigley, MD. Her research aims to restore the gut microbiota in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease in order to reduce neurodegeneration that occurs following a traumatic brain injury. The results from her research will provide the foundation for pursuing novel therapies based in manipulating the microbiota for Alzheimer's disease-related pathologies consequence of traumatic brain injury.

past Projects

Matthew Hogan, PhD

Matt Hogan is a member of the first NeuralCODR cohort. His primary mentor is Philip Horner, PhD, (Nervous System and Peripheral Organ Disorders), in whose laboratory he completed his first-year focal project. His progress has successfully led to a well-defined project and mentorship team, three peer-reviewed manuscripts, and another two under review. Dr. Hogan’s project has been clearly impacted by the training environment created through NeuralCODR. Specifically, Dr. Hogan has melded into his research a novel clinical perspective on how stimulation devices can be delivered surgically through his clinical hours with neurosurgeon Sean Barber, MD. Further, Dr. Hogan submitted an NRSA and several foundation fellowship applications based on the clinically relevant design. He was awarded two fellowships: one from the Neilsen Foundation and one from the Morton Cure Paralysis Fund. Dr. Hogan’s goals are to apply his engineering training in the vascular system to that of neural stimulation paradigms for neural plasticity. The Horner Laboratory provides Dr. Hogan training in small animal physiology, injury modeling and the rigorous assessment of plasticity. Finally, Dr. Hogan’s clinical experience with Gavin W. Britz, MBBCh, MPH, MBA, FAANS, has focused on learning how to perform electrical implantations. This cross-disciplinary training has forged Dr. Hogan's project into an exciting intersection of the role of neural activity and neuronal plasticity after brain injury.

Caroline Cvetkovic, PhD

Caroline Cvetkovic's primary mentor was Robert C. Krencik, PhD (Neural Development and Tools). Dr. Cvetkovic completed her first-year focal project in the Krencik Laboratory. Her secondary mentor was Francesca Taraballi, PhD (Neural Innervation and Organ Engineering), and Sean Barber, MD, served as her clinical advisor. Dr. Cvetkovic’s graduate expertise is in bioengineering and 3D tissue engineering. As a NeuralCODR fellow, Dr. Cvetkovic sought to engineer biomimetic nano-scale vesicles applicable for central nervous system targeting and therapeutics by combining lipid-based nanoparticles with human stem cell-derived neural cells. Her project bridged multiple research fields with the potential for extensive collaboration as well as translation to other organ systems outside of the central nervous system. During her tenure as a fellow, she was awarded the Excellence in Mentoring Award (2020 Houston Methodist OGSTA) as well as both the Juror’s Choice Winner and the People’s Choice Winner in the NeuroArt Image Contest (2020). Additionally, she published one first author and one co-authored journal article. Currently, she is a Teaching Professor of Bioengineering at the Grainger College of Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Betsy Salazar, PhD

Betsy Salazar's primary mentor was Philip Horner, PhD (Nervous System and Peripheral Organ Disorders). Her secondary mentor was Rose Khavari, MD (Nervous System and Peripheral Organ Disorders) and Dimitry Sayenko, MD, PhD served as her clinical advisor. As a NeuralCODR fellow, Dr. Salazar explored the therapeutic effects of electrical stimulation on sensorimotor function after spinal cord injury. More specifically, she sought to examine the mechanisms associated with spinal cord injury and bladder dysfunction first by assessing the spinal circuitry regulating the neural control of bladder voiding following spinal cord injury and second by defining electrical stimulation protocols that improve both motor and bladder function after spinal cord injury. Dr. Salazar now has a faculty appointment as a Research Scientist in the Urology Department at Houston Methodist. Her work focuses on studying the bladder-brain connection and utilizing noninvasive neuromodulation techniques to treat neurogenic and nonneurogenic bladder in humans. Notably, she recently presented data collected during her tenure as a NeuralCODR fellow at Mission Connect where her poster was awarded 1st place.