When something goes awry in the brain, the consequences are often devastating. But neuromodulation—the use of stimulating electrical signals or miniscule devices to alter the way the nervous system functions—is opening new horizons in neurological healing.
Arti Gaur, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at the Geisel School of Medicine and Norris Cotton Cancer Center researcher, is a biologist who focuses largely on detecting, treating, and curing brain cancer. In collaboration with Axel Scherer, PhD, from California Institute of Technology, Gaur is developing nanoscale devices for early detection of neurological diseases as well as targeted drug delivery.
The devices are just 1 millimeter by 1 millimeter—about the size of a grain of salt—but their impact could be enormous. These multitasking chips may answer previously inscrutable questions about brain disease by identifying the biomarkers that indicate the presence of disease, carrying medicine to parts of the brain that were until now unreachable, and monitoring the effects of treatment.
“We need to understand what’s right in order to figure out what’s wrong,” explains Gaur. “There’s an absolute randomness to which patients get brain tumors. Why do some children get gliomas? Is there an initial insult to the developing brain, or is it a failure of the immune system? Can we predict brain metastases—which develop from cancers that originate elsewhere in the body but kill more people than brain tumors?”
Gaur and her team of research assistants, graduate students, medical students, and undergrads—a team that includes clinicians, engineers, chemists, and biochemists—already have tested the chips in mice, and Gaur speculates it won’t be long before patients in the intensive care unit volunteer to be part of human trials.
“Patients usually ask, ‘How can I help?’ before we’ve even finished explaining what we’re trying to accomplish,” Gaur says. And though she is not a clinician, she believes speaking with patients is one of the most important parts of her job.
“It’s imperative for basic scientists to see patients, to be reminded of what we’re fighting for and why we fight.”