$3.3M Awarded to ENG Researchers under NIH BRAIN Initiative

Cheng and Han will study the mechanism of ultrasound neurostimulation

By Liz Sheeley

Primary neurons activated by optoacoustic wave. Image provided by Professor Ji-Xin Cheng

Professor Ji-Xin Cheng (ECE, BME, MSE) and Associate Professor Xue Han (BME) have been awarded a 5-year $3.3M grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The Initiative is a collaboration between government agencies, private foundations, and research institutes and universities.

“This award is a great example of the highly collaborative research environment at BU,” says Cheng, who was an addition to the faculty in 2017. “Here, I am able to collaborate with bright scientists like Xue, who I am extremely grateful for as she brought me into the BRAIN Initiative. Collaborations like this one have helped me quickly build up a new research direction.”

Their research proposal has three specific aims, but overall plans to deliver a systematic understanding of the effects of a non-invasive brain stimulation technique, ultrasound neuromodulation. By developing a deep knowledge of how this technique works, the researchers will build a new foundation for the design of ultrasound neuro-stimulators for basic neuroscience research as well as treatment of neurological disorders.

Han first started exploring this research through a 2015 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Young Faculty Award, which provided her funding to examine the biophysical mechanisms of ultrasound neuromodulation.

“We are very excited to continue this research effort using the novel opto-acoustic technique developed by Ji-Xin,” says Han.

Cheng’s expertise in imaging and opto-acoustic technology and Han’s expertise in neuroengineering and neuroscience are complementary. Combining these areas of research will allow them to study ultrasound effects with high precision in space and time at single cell and sub-cellular levels. Understanding ultrasound at a cellular level has wide-ranging implications as it’s been shown to be able to stimulate peripheral nerves, the spinal cord and important circuits in the brain such as the cortex that relays sensory messages to the body and the auditory complex.

To achieve these goals, the team plans to use novel technologies to stimulate an area less than one millimeter wide and record the effects. They will be able to finely tune the ultrasound frequency in the experiment, and then record how neurons react and then communicate with each other and they will also be able to see how individual neurons behave. This detailed map will let them see how a neuron closer or further away from the ultrasound stimulation behaves and what kind of communication signals are sent off in response.