The Body Electric

UMBC researchers forge links between tech and medicine

Monitoring significant developments in a patient’s health outside a hospital setting can be challenging, but two UMBC researchers – Tinoosh Mohsenin and Gymama Slaughter – have won separate grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help meet those challenges.

Mohsenin received a $100,000 grant from the NSF to develop signal processing architecture to detect seizures. The award of $150,000 to Slaughter from the foundation was to pursue work on nanoelectric probe arrays.

Not only does the work done by these two UMBC professors have important implications for basic medical science, but it is also research that may also provide more insight into how we think and feel, or improve how people with disabilities navigate in the world.

Watch and Wear

When patients are in a hospital, they often are connected to a myriad of monitoring devices attached to various parts of their body. Any changes are noted quickly by doctors or nurses.

Outside the hospital, however, it is more difficult to monitor for important warning signs of distress. The parent of a child with juvenile epilepsy, for instance, must watch until their child goes to sleep and be ready to act for signs of distress – because just before sleep is usually when such seizures occur. The fear and uncertainty of epilepsy for both patients and caregivers puts limits on their independence and reduces their quality of life.

Research pursued by Tinoosh Mohsenin – an assistant professor of computer engineering at UMBC – aims to give those parents (and patients everywhere) monitoring devices and systems as good as those provided in a hospital.

Mohsenin runs UMBC’s Energy Efficient High Performance Computing Lab, which is involved with the design and implementation of various signal processing algorithms and hardware that require real time processing within a limited power budget. Working with professor of computer science and electrical engineering Tim Oates at the computer science department and researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center, she is developing wearable monitors to detect when someone is having a seizure no matter where they are.

A wearable seizure monitoring and alerting system could provide greater independence for patients with epilepsy. The technology available at present to monitor for seizures outside hospitals is bulky and uncomfortable. The current devices usually are worn in caps with electrodes attached to the head. They use a great deal of power, all drawn from batteries.

Worse yet, these devices are subject to a lot of noise due to movement of cap and a high number of false positives – and may not distinguish between a seizure and the patient brushing their teeth.

“There are not very efficient devices for people who suffer from epilepsy or those people whose epilepsy cannot be treated with medication,” she says.

At present, the only physiological signals measured by most of epilepsy monitors are electroencephalograph (EEG) signals. But Mohsenin envisions a device that measures even more indicators – including heart rate, oxygenation, and sweat/sudomotor response. She also wants to add an accelerometer for motion detection, which would pick up shaking and recognize if the patient falls.

What Mohsenin envisions is a monitor with a comfortable headband that would measure EEG signals, and an arm band that would contain an accelerometer and could measure other signals such as pulse.

“It has to be very accurate,” says Mohsenin, who even has ambitions for the device to call for medical assistance when it detects a seizure in a patient who is alone.

Each device would have to be trained for each patient because seizures and patients vary. And the device must also work within a “power budget” that uses as little power as possible with long battery life.

Presently Mohsenin and Oates are working on the variety of representations and machine learning algorithms to extract useful information from multi-physiological signals for such a device. The amount of computation the devices have to do is daunting, she says. She is concentrating mostly on creating the processor hardware and its low power implementation.

Mohsenin and colleagues at Georgia Institute of Technology are also working on another personalized wearable biomedical project – a wireless and wearable intraural device in the form of dental retainer that allows individuals with tetraplegia to access computers, drive wheelchairs, and control their environments.

Going for Gold

One of the key problems in monitoring brain activity is physiological. To place brain monitors on a patient requires major surgery, in which holes are drilled into the skull and part of the skull is lifted up. A relatively large, flat, and rigid device is then inserted. It is a process is fraught with peril.

Gymama Slaughter, an assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering, is exploring how nanotechnology might produce a device that can monitor brain activity without such risk.

In the Bioelectronics Lab she created from the ground up at UMBC, Slaughter is working in the nano-scale on artifacts so small they are at molecular or near molecular scale.

The brain monitoring device she is working on is like a pyramid, literally one cubic millimeter in size with a tip pitch of 20 nanometers. (A millimeter is 4/100th of an inch.)

She is using gold for the device because it is an excellent electrical conductor, perfect for measuring electrical activity, and yet causes no adverse reaction in the body.

The device is also small enough to be inserted with a conventional syringe and flexible enough to be comfortable. It can also conform to the shape of the brain and be placed between the brain and the skull.

“A seven-gauge syringe will do it,” she observes, “and [the device] will enable large number of neurons to be interfaced simultaneously,” she said. The result is a monitor that will enable hundreds, thousands, or even millions of simultaneous electrophysiological recordings.

These neurosensors will collect data on brain activity, including what happens when a patient acquires Parkinson’s disease, strokes, epilepsy, brain damage, or Alzheimer’s.

“It might eventually measure how people behave,” says Slaughter. “What happens in the brain during anger, jealousy, or sadness?” It may also help understand researchers understand brain disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder.

Slaughter is also working on a number of other projects: one monitor will give a running count of blood sugar in diabetics and deliver insulin when blood sugar is high to help people with diabetes avoid the usual complications, and another monitor tracks what happens when brain cells react to the brain toxins involved in Parkinson’s disease.

She is also pursuing a project to harvest energy from within the body to power bio-implantable devices without using external battery with the hope to improve individual’s well-being. Slaughter adds that the realization of energy harvesting from within the body is an attractive proposition not only for sensing and actuating, but also may have uses for electronics and defense technologies.

– Joel N.Shurkin