In January, the Penn Brain Science Translation Innovation and Modulation (brainSTIM) Center launched through the support of the Perelman School of Medicine. Its primary objective, says the center’s director, Roy H. Hamilton, MD, MS, an Associate Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, is to unite experts in a variety of disciplines from across the university to enhance translational neuroscience and develop novel interventions for a range of neurologic conditions, psychiatric disorders, and other fields for which the therapies are imperfect through the use of innovative brain stimulation technologies.
“We have tremendous bench-depth here at Penn in the area of neuromodulation and in closely related areas of science,” Dr. Hamilton says. “The idea behind forming the brainSTIM Center is that much more can be accomplished if we act synergistically rather than staying siloed. If you add up all the talent and expertise here at Penn, we collectively represent one of the most productive, innovative groups of neuromodulators in the country. We simply need to find ways to leverage each other’s strengths.”
Understanding the brain
Recent evolutions in the science are also part of the impetus for the center. Our understanding of how the brain is organized has grown, and with that, Dr. Hamilton says, we’re also learning how that organization lends itself to focused manipulation, which could spur an even deeper understanding of the brain, as well as interventions that could potentially address long-standing conditions.
“That increasing understanding, including discoveries in neurophysiology, neuroimaging, network science, or the confluence of those developments is what really makes this an ideal time to be advancing tools that can focally manipulate the brain in a variety of ways in order to achieve a range of desired effects,” he says.
The brainSTIM Center currently exists within a conceptual framework, though Dr. Hamilton says he does foresee a time in the future when a physical hub would help facilitate efforts. It’s comprised of 11 faculty members, some from the Department of Neurology, but many others from outside of it, including the Department of Psychiatry, the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Wharton School.
“Each of the investigators has their own projects, and we are working to put together collective projects that will be funded,” Dr. Hamilton says. “We’re starting off with the support of the institution, but our ambition is to quickly expand to a combination of joint grant support, as well as philanthropic support for projects that seem more appropriate for that avenue of funding.”
Occupying the center’s attention through its early days is the question of how the information that’s gleaned from the brain’s functional organization can be used to personalize and optimize the delivery of neuromodulation, or the practice of using non-invasive stimulation technologies (magnets or electrodes) to focally manipulate brain activity in ways that affect speech, mood, behavior, and potentially more.
“One thing we’re always trying to figure out is how best can we do that? And, can we move beyond making group-level predictions?” Dr. Hamilton says. “If we understood the brain’s structure better, with a high degree of fidelity, we’d be able to stimulate person A in a way that we are confident is going to be superior for that person, and we can provide person B their own stimulation approach that’s based on their unique brain anatomy and function. There’s a parallel to personalized medicine, where we’re taking specific biological information to tailor new treatments."
Specific as that may sound, it’s a concept that’s also of interest to a number of other fields, including psychiatry, rehabilitation, cognitive neuroscience, and even engineering, Dr. Hamilton says.
“The same question is germane to all these people, but each group’s coming at it with its own specific flavor informed by what their discipline is and who it seems like their work would be applicable to in their own world,” he says. “You could see the benefit of us coming together in one place to ask and answer the questions that will benefit us all.”