A pivotal second in Polina Anikeeva’s profession was when she checked out an MRI scan of Parkinson’s illness affected person, a few decade in the past.
Now professor of supplies science and engineering and mind and cognitive sciences at MIT, Anikeeva had just lately labored on optoelectronics, units that may detect and management mild, and her work was used to light up the quantum-dot shows on Samsung TVs. However Anikeeva’s analysis pursuits began to stray into biology and neuroscience, disciplines outdoors her instant orbit.
“I wished to use my information as a supplies scientist and engineer to issues that had been unsolved, to units that didn’t exist,” mentioned Anikeeva on April 22, whereas delivering the Division of Supplies Science and Engineering’s twice-yearly Wulff Lecture.
She discovered these issues in nervous system issues comparable to Parkinson’s. In Parkinson’s illness, neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine within the mind start to die off. Sufferers typically have problem controlling or initiating motion, and signs worsen over time. Medicine assist, however cease working after a number of years.
Deep mind stimulation (DBS) remedy is usually the final resort. It has promising outcomes; sufferers who bear DBS typically can higher management their motion. However the process, involving inserting electrodes into the mind, can have profound unintended effects, together with a change in character. There are two issues: the primary is dimension. Electrodes are a thousand instances bigger than the mind cells they’re attempting to stimulate. Complexity is a good greater downside, Anikeeva mentioned: completely different cells have completely different capabilities. “And in case you’re stimulating all of them without delay, you do not know what is going on to occur.”
Anikeeva and her analysis workforce draw from disciplines as various as supplies science, neuroscience, and telecommunications to enhance therapy for nervous system issues. In pursuit of that aim, they’ve developed neural probes that match the mind’s physiology, to allow them to stimulate mind cells with out inflicting harm to delicate tissues.
Ultimately month’s public occasion, focused towards first-year college students, Anikeeva was launched by DMSE division head Jeff Grossman, who gave a short introduction to supplies sciences and engineering. “We construct matter from the atom up,” he mentioned. The aim is to construct supplies with higher properties and efficiency. “And we take into consideration how to try this from a very broad vary of different disciplines and methods of considering.”
The Wulff Lecture collection, created in 1977, honors John Wulff, a longtime MIT supplies science professor who spearheaded the favored course 3.091 (Introduction to Stable State Chemistry). The thought of the collection is to “encourage anybody who’s involved in understanding what our self-discipline does, what our self-discipline is about, why it’s thrilling and impactful,” Grossman mentioned.
All through her lecture, Anikeeva credited any affect her work may have on society on the interdisciplinary nature of supplies science — the willingness to look to different fields for solutions to hard-to-crack issues.
For instance, determining learn how to set off the proper neuron would come from microbiology. Anikeeva turned to the work of a Stanford College bioengineering workforce that utilized proteins from a microorganism known as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a single-cell algae that makes use of mild to propel hairlike appendages known as flagella and swim. That very same, light-driven mechanism can be utilized to stimulate a specific neuron. It’s a neuroscience analysis methodology generally known as optogenetics.
“We will now manipulate neurons that we would like by utilizing mild and depart the remainder — bystander neurons — alone, avoiding unintended effects,” Anikeeva mentioned.
The issue of dimension would require a special kind of considering. For a fabric that would snake by way of the squishy softness of an organ just like the mind — Anikeeva introduced a food-grade mind from the butcher to show — she turned to telecommunications. Fiber-optic cables like these used to make long-distance calls had been engineered to ship electrical, optical, and chemical indicators to the mind. However the materials that makes up such fibers is stiff and will harm mind tissue.
Room for Jell-O?
Because it seems, the hydrogels that give the dessert its jiggly texture are much like the elastic properties of the mind.
“These are polymers that may soak up important portions of water and swell and assume the mechanics of the mind fairly exactly,” Anikeeva mentioned. Researchers can tune the fabric to imitate “each kind of neural tissue.”
However to push a fiber with the property of a “moist noodle” into the mind requires one more disciplinary detour — this time into the artwork world. Consider a paint brush, Anikeeva mentioned. Its tender bristles couldn’t puncture something, by no means thoughts a mass like a mind.
When dipped into paint and allowed to dry, although, its bristles harden and might function a wedge to penetrate tender tissue. That is precisely the best way Anikeeva’s hydrogel-fiber machine works in lab experiments on mice. On getting into the mind, “it re-hydrates, and now assumes the mechanics of the mind and might transfer stealthily along with the mind, producing no harm.”
One other piece of Anikeeva’s analysis examines the best way cells reply to thermal stimulation, which may result in new sorts of therapeutic remedies. First, minuscule nanoparticles are injected into the physique; then they’re heated up with a magnetic subject. That opens up channels in close by neurons, activating them.
Determining how to try this, once more, required working throughout a number of fields. For instance, utilizing warmth to stimulate neuronal exercise comes from information and utility of mobile biology — “You drink sizzling tea, your tongue burns. You exit for Thai meals, your tongue burns,” Anikeeva mentioned, as a result of the protein that responds to warmth additionally responds to the spice in sizzling peppers. To make sure that nanoparticles can dissipate warmth effectively, Anikeeva’s workforce depends on supplies chemistry and information of crystal construction — the ordered association of atoms of their make-up — to engineer their magnetic responses.
Combining all of it
The combo of disciplines on view was what introduced Catherine Tune to the occasion. She went to Princeton College as an undergraduate and moved to the Boston space to work at Massachusetts Normal Hospital in a neurology lab.
“In undergrad I did quite a lot of natural chemistry — that’s cool, however I felt quite a lot of the motion in that’s towards drug growth and taking a look at particular enzymes and metabolic pathways,” says Tune, who is considering doing graduate work in interdisciplinary analysis. “I actually just like the granular side of analysis and chemistry and supplies, however learn how to mix all that’s actually thrilling.”
First-year undergraduate college students Mishael Quraishi and Karen Lei had been additionally drawn to the lecture’s multifaceted subject. Quraishi, a newly declared supplies science main, heard within the speak proof that she’s in the proper space of research.
“I’m involved in not solely supplies issues but in addition how they are often utilized to higher social points, so health-care spheres — entrepreneurship can be one thing I’m involved in,” Quraishi says. “All of those interdisciplinary issues I really feel like DMSE permits me to discover a number of of these passions.”
Lei, who together with Quraishi additionally attended the Wulff Lecture in October that includes Division of Organic Engineering head Angela Belcher, famous the latest development of connecting disciplines particularly with biology.
“For those who regarded on the 1900s, biology was very far more pure science — molecular biology trying into DNA construction, RNA,” says Lei, who’s majoring in physics. “Now, increasingly more individuals are taking a look at biology as a brand new sort of frontier the place you combine it with engineering, you combine it with supplies science, combine it with digital engineering as effectively.”
Provides Quraishi: “It additionally tends to be extra about innovation and design slightly than discovery. When you uncover the completed DNA, how are you going to iterate upon it?”