University of South Florida

USF professors focus diverse skills into life-saving stroke device

Who said engineering and neuroscience aren’t good bedfellows?

Two University of South Florida professors are proof that disparate disciplines can work together for a common cause – gaining a better understanding of a common health emergency.

Ashwin Parthasarathy, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Maxim Mokin, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery and Brain Repair, are collaborating on a device that could help prevent strokes in patients during surgery.

(L-r) Dr. Ashwin Parthasarathy, PhD, and Dr. Maxim Mokin, MD, PhD, at Tampa General Hospital as Dr. Parthasarathy tests probes for electrical activity.

“We’re looking to see how new technologies can help drive patient care,’’ Dr. Parthasarathy said of their multi-disciplinary work. “As an engineer, I’m interested in the technology aspect and as a neurologist, Maxim is interested in the medical aspect. But I can address what his needs are and come up with solutions.’’

The engineering department is on the USF campus in northeast Tampa, while much of the work in neurology takes place downtown, at the USF Health South Tampa Center and Tampa General Hospital, USF Health’s primary teaching partner. Traditionally, most teamwork among scientists is done in closer proximity.

“It’s quite rare to be doing this because physically, we don’t even run into each other on campus,’’ Dr. Mokin said. “Engineers live and breathe in their silos and we clinicians don’t get exposed to what they do.’’

The faculty members recently were awarded a two-year, $400,000 research grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a part of the National Institutes of Health. The money will help them collect more quantitative data from their new device, with the goal of improving treatment for patients. They also will purchase tools to refine the technology and make it fully automated, capture more data points, and hire a research coordinator.

“We’re working to make it more robust and easy to use,’’ Dr. Parthasarathy said.

Called a DCS − for diffuse correlation spectroscopy − the optical monitoring tool uses fiber optics to emit light and capture a returning signal. The light monitors blood flow to the brain during surgery and gives real-time information. Any abnormalities in how the light travels alerts doctors to a potential problem, such as a stroke or brain bleed. An explanation of their initial research findings has been published in the Journal of NeuroInterventional Surgery.

For years, neurologists have used MRIs, CAT scans and transcranial dopplers to take images of the brain, but these don’t always give surgeons the information they need at a precise moment. The new, non-invasive device – which has been tested on more than a dozen patients at TGH − uses small plastic caps attached to the head that send real-time data to a monitor in the operating room.

An image of the before (left) and after treatment delivered at Tampa General Hospital.

“The others are good tools but they’re bulky and only give you a snapshot,’’ Dr. Mokin said. “This is a small portable device that studies brain functions in an acute setting, and it gives a continuous recording.’’

The faculty members believe their invention could be a breakthrough in a critical aspect of health care. Each year, nearly 800,000 people in the United States suffer a stroke – one every 40 seconds, according to the American Heart Association. The majority of these incidents are ischemic, meaning blood flow to the brain is reduced or blocked.

“This device is giving us more data to better understand brain signals that might indicate a stroke,’’ Dr. Mokin said. “We need to know more about what is noise, what is normal function, what are the thresholds, and what changes indicate that something bad is about to happen.’’

The more information gathered in the operating room the better, the doctors say, as it will lead to efficiencies on the engineering bench.

“It’s an exciting way to do science,’’ Dr. Parthasarathy said. “I’m able to get instantaneous feedback on how my device is working, so it’s not just me toiling alone in the lab.

“Our hope is to show how this technology has great clinical value, maybe by predicting if a patient is getting better or worse. That’s the end game − predictive value in our measurements.’’

– Story by Kurt Loft for USF Health News; photos by Allison Long, USF Health Communications 

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