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August 05, 2013 // By Kim Menard // Comments

Teaming up for Neuroscience Innovation

Basic Science // Brain and Behavior // Neurodegenerative Diseases // Radiology // Research Share this article

Last Monday, following a briefing on the current state of neuroscience research across the United States, held in Philadelphia's University City Science Center and hosted by Congressman Chaka Fattah, we had the opportunity to take the morning's featured speaker, Dr. Philip Rubin, Principal Assistant Director for Science at The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), on a whirlwind tour of brain-related research here at Penn Medicine.

When added together, brain diseases and mental health conditions like Parkinson's and depression affect a total of 50 million Americans annually, costing an estimated $500 billion dollars a year in medical and long term care costs. While national and international initiatives are emerging to address the widespread impact of diseases such as Alzheimer's and stroke, Penn's collaborative efforts are already pushing research forward into helping patients today. 

Throughout the tour, we visited innovators and pioneering thinkers from a range of departments - Neurology, Neurosurgery, Radiology, Psychiatry, Medical Ethics, Engineering, Psychology and Psychiatry - who showed and discussed the latest applications and advances in their areas. As pictured below, we trekked from end to end of the medical campus to give Dr. Rubin a sampling that he said "thoroughly impressed [me] with everything that I saw."

Starting the day in the lab of tour leader Frances Jensen, MD, chair of Neurology, we learned about translational drug discovery efforts to treat neonatal seizures. Some 40 percent of children on the autism spectrum have seizures very early in life, so finding targeted treatments to help prevent seizures could have a broader impact beyond epilepsy, Dr. Jensen noted.

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In the Neuro - Intensive Care Unit, division chief Josh Levine, MD, and chair of Neurosurgery, M. Sean Grady, MD, explained how colleagues has developed a way to integrate the terabytes of data acquired from the dozens of bedside intracranial pressure and cerebral blood flow monitors to notice trends for an individual or a larger group. By watching a patient's individual progress over time, the team is able to adjust care accordingly, setting a new level of integration that could serve as a model for critical care units across the country.

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In the Smilow Center for Translational Research, Amita Sehgal, PhD, professor of Neuroscience, demonstrated how her lab uses the fruit fly to study the molecular and genetic components of sleep and circadian rhythms. 

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Steven Arnold, MD, director of the Penn Memory Center and David Wolk, MD, the Center's associate director, walked us through the busy Penn Memory Center and discussed the ways that basic science and drug discovery efforts here in Penn's Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research are pushing Alzheimer's disease therapies into clinical trials faster.

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In the afternoon, we visited two brain research groups located in an Engineering building across campus. Penn Center for Brain Injury and Repair director Douglas Smith, MD, professor of Neurosurgery, discussed the way his team is stretching axons in animal models to hopefully reconnect nerves that have been damaged. He also described work looking at the impact that just a single traumatic brain injury can have on neurons in the brain and collaborations to conduct important research into concussions.

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Brian Litt, MD, professor of Neurology, had his lab team members each explain to Dr. Rubin how they are developing automated implantable devices, understanding how seizures begin and spread, interpreting multi-scale neurosignals through machine learning, mapping functional networks and circuits in human brain, and inventing novel electronics technology for high quality signal recording and brain modulation.

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Tim Lucas, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Neurosurgery, described his lab's efforts to restore motor function for patients with disability from stroke, trauma, and neurodegenerative conditions.

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Dr. Rubin also spoke about ethical issues related to neurological diseases, meeting with Penn Center for Neuroscience and Society leaders Martha Farah, PhD, and Geoff Aguirre, MD, PhD, along with Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, chair of the department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy and the Diane v.S. Levy and Robert M. Levy University Professor and Vice Provost for Global Initiatives.

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Rounding out the day, Dr. Rubin stopped to talk with a team to discuss brain mapping, biomarker and real-time diagnostic monitoring efforts that the inventive team in Radiology. Mitchell D. Schnall, MD, PhD, chair of Radiology and John Detre, MD, Professor of Neurology and director of the Center for Functional Neuroimaging described how Penn Radiology has played an integral role in advancing tools to map fiber tracts in the brain that can be used to guide surgery, creating ways to measure cerebral blood flow and metabolism under normal and conditions and in response to brain injury, and developing biomarker measures for Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases.

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