NEUROLOGY & NEUROSURGERY

Houston Methodist & Rice University Launch Neuroprosthetic Center: Where Engineering and Medicine Meet

May 27, 2021 - Todd Ackerman

Houston Methodist and Rice University are partnering on a new venture aimed at replacing damaged neural tissue with electronic devices, a frontier that's tantalized researchers for decades but now finally seems attainable.

The neighboring institutions' Neuroprosthetic Center, launched last month, will bring together scientists, clinicians, engineers and surgeons to design and implement technologies to diagnose, treat and assist people suffering from brain and spinal cord injuries and disorders.

"This center will accelerate discoveries that are now possible, some 20 years after the challenges seemed too great to overcome," says Dr. Gavin W. Britz, chairman of the Houston Methodist Department of Neurosurgery and co-director of the new center. "We're ready to move beyond just taking out brain tumors and begin replacing or augmenting parts of the brain to repair or optimize human beings."

Dr. Britz said he's hopeful the Center for Translational Neural Prosthetics and Interfaces, the venture's full name, can start bringing such treatment to patients within about five years.

What are neuroprosthetics?

Few types of disease are in such need of new treatment. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. live with some sort of neurological condition, be it spinal cord injury, hearing or vision loss, damage caused by a stroke, or degenerative conditions like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis. There is little treatment.

Neuroprosthetics are devices that can help people with such motor or sensory disabilities gain control of their senses and movements by creating a connection between the brain and a computer. That is, they enable people to move, hear, see and touch using the power of thought alone.

The development of cochlear implants, one type of neuroprosthetic, dates back to the 1950s. But most such devices are just now beginning to emerge as viable interventions in the field of brain and spinal cord injury or degeneration, thanks to recent advances in microchip miniaturization.

Dr. Britz said the field has nevertheless been held back by sometimes insular research tendencies, the shortcoming the Neuroprosthetic Center hopes to correct. It also will collaborate with the University of Southern California, a leader in the field, as well as any interested parties in the Texas Medical Center and around the world.

Most other neuroprosthetic research is conducted at single-institution centers.

Dr. Britz' interest in the field stems from his own family experience, a father who become a paraplegic when he was 4 and a mother who died recently from ALS. He says his background shaped him, instilled in him a desire to fix the brain.

What type of research will the Neuroprosthetic Center focus on?

The Houston Methodist-Rice Neuroprosthetic Center will emphasize:

  • Prosthetics
  • Deep brain stimulation, such as that employed with Parkinson's patients
  • Cell therapy, currently under research with stroke and ALS patients

The center's core team will include Houston Methodist neurosurgeons and Rice Neuroengineering Initiative members, some of whom collaborated prior to the center's launch, as well as other physicians and faculty at the two institutions. In addition, leaders are in the process of hiring three more engineers who will have joint appointments.

The Houston Methodist space, at a West Pavilion area to be completed late this year, will include operating rooms and a human laboratory for patient diagnosis and assessment, device development and testing, and education and training opportunities. The centerpiece: a zero-gravity harness connected to a walking track, with cameras and sensors to record feedback, brain activity and other data.

Houston Methodist neurobiologist Philip J. Horner describes the lab as "a merging of wetware with hardware." Robotics, computers, electronic arrays and other technology are the hardware. The human brain and the spinal cord are the wetware.

The center will also feature more than 25,000 square feet of Rice Neuroengineering Initiative laboratories and experimental spaces in the university's BioScience Research Collaborative.

Rice's Marcia O'Malley, a core member of both the new center and the Rice neuroengineering initiative, and a professor in mechanical engineering, called the partnership "a perfect blend of talent" and said the possibilities are "limitless."

Are there any research projects underway at the Neuroprosthetic Center?

Collaborations between the two institutions already underway include:

  • A pilot project merging two technologies to restore hand function following a spinal cord injury or stroke — an upper limb exoskeleton and a noninvasive stimulator designed to wake up the spinal cord. The hope is that the technologies will help patients achieve a more extensive recovery at a faster pace.
  • A study to measure the neurovascular response following a subarachnoid hemorrhage — a life-threatening stroke caused by bleeding just outside the brain that kills or leaves permanent disabilities in two-thirds of people who suffer such events. Small and flexible electrodes that can be implanted in the brain to measure, record and map its activities, invented by a Rice engineer, could lead to human brain implants that may help patients recover from traumatic brain injuries caused by disease or accidents.
  • Research to detect mild traumatic brain injuries through multimodal observations and alleviate them using neuromodulations. This project is of particular interest to the Department of Defense.

"The foundation of the brain and spinal cord is electricity," says Dr. Britz. "We think engineering can now solve some things when the foundation breaks down. It's not a new field, but it's going to become the way we repair the brain."