$2.85M grant enables professor to study brain activity

Bioengineering professor Hanli Liu is working with a team to study the effects of infrared light on the brain.

Liu and her colleagues received a four-year, $2.85 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effect of using a noninvasive neurostimulation tool on the brain.

This project is part of the institute’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN program. The goal is to advance the development and application of innovative technologies so researchers can have a more complete picture of how the brain operates.

Liu described the brain as a system with multiple parts working together to complete their objective. This system acts like a circuit board with many different pathways throughout the brain. Neurons transmit signals along these pathways that tell the body what to do, Liu said.

One of the main objectives for this project is to better understand how these pathways are connected and how the signals communicate with each other, she said.

Until preliminary data was collected, no one even knew light could stimulate brainwaves, Liu said. Now using the neurostimulation tool and brain imaging software together, researchers are able to monitor how the signals are traveling, she said.

Fenghua Tian, bioengineering research assistant professor, used Liu’s research in exploratory clinical trials with student veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

The prefrontal cortex is hyperactive in those with PTSD than in brains without, which reduces the cognitive efficiency of the brain and makes memory recall more difficult, Tian said.

By using the infrared laser intervention on these veterans, it improved the functionality of the prefrontal cortex to make memory recall easier, Tian said.

During the trial, an infrared laser is placed on the right side of the forehead, Liu said. Then, the light is absorbed by an enzyme in the mitochondria of the neuron. Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, so the light stimulates the neurons and researchers are able to get a clearer picture of the signals traveling in the brain, she said.

Infrared light is part of the light spectrum we can feel but not see, like the warmth of light from the sun, for instance.

This intervention is short, lasting eight minutes, and has no known side effects, said Tian.

“People will not feel anything because we are using light and it’s infrared light; it’s a low-energy light. It doesn’t have any radiation risk,” Tian said.

Francisco Gonzalez-Lima, centennial professor of neuroscience and physiological psychology at UT-Austin, collaborated with Tian on these clinical trials, he said.

After the veterans in the study had the infrared light intervention done, their recall ability improved, causing traumatic memories to resurface, Gonzalez-Lima said.

This is commonly referred to as fear extinction or exposure treatment, which forces the subject to face their fear rather than repressing it, Gonzalez-Lima said.

The group has done other studies on students with clinical depression as well as elderly adults, and in both cases found cognition was enhanced, Gonzalez-Lima said.

“Evidence-based studies, studies show that human memory can be improved by this intervention,” Liu said.

While the project still needs more research and evidence, this technology combined with other current methods of treatment has the potential to help those with many different types of physiological illnesses, Tian said.



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