Is it neuroscience? Chemistry? Art? Wulff Lecture shows versatility, diversity in materials science | MIT News


A pivotal moment in Polina Anikeeva’s job was when she looked at an MRI scan of Parkinson’s illness patient, about a 10 years in the past.

Now professor of materials science and engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, Anikeeva had lately worked on optoelectronics, products that can detect and command gentle, and her operate was applied to illuminate the quantum-dot displays on Samsung TVs. But Anikeeva’s investigate pursuits commenced to stray into biology and neuroscience, disciplines outdoors her rapid orbit.

“I preferred to utilize my information as a elements scientist and engineer to complications that had been unsolved, to units that didn’t exist,” mentioned Anikeeva on April 22, even though offering the Department of Components Science and Engineering’s two times-annually Wulff Lecture.

She identified people troubles in nervous method ailments these types of as Parkinson’s. In Parkinson’s illness, neurons that create the neurotransmitter dopamine in the mind begin to die off. Clients usually have problem controlling or initiating motion, and indications get worse above time. Medicines assistance, but stop operating soon after a number of a long time.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) remedy is typically the final resort. It has promising outcomes individuals who undergo DBS frequently can far better manage their movement. But the technique, involving positioning electrodes into the mind, can have profound facet consequences, like a adjust in identity. There are two complications: the initially is dimensions. Electrodes are a thousand moments bigger than the mind cells they’re hoping to stimulate. Complexity is an even even larger trouble, Anikeeva said: distinct cells have diverse functions. “And if you might be stimulating all of them at the moment, you don’t know what is actually heading to come about.”

Anikeeva and her analysis crew attract from disciplines as numerous as elements science, neuroscience, and telecommunications to strengthen procedure for nervous procedure problems. In pursuit of that objective, they’ve designed neural probes that match the brain’s physiology, so they can encourage mind cells with out resulting in harm to fragile tissues.

At very last month’s public event, specific towards to start with-calendar year learners, Anikeeva was launched by DMSE division head Jeff Grossman, who gave a temporary introduction to components sciences and engineering. “We build issue from the atom up,” he claimed. The objective is to develop products with better houses and performance. “And we imagine about how to do that from a really broad array of other disciplines and approaches of pondering.”

The Wulff Lecture sequence, produced in 1977, honors John Wulff, a longtime MIT supplies science professor who spearheaded the well-known course 3.091 (Introduction to Sound Condition Chemistry). The idea of the series is to “inspire any person who’s fascinated in being familiar with what our self-control does, what our self-control is about, why it is fascinating and impactful,” Grossman mentioned.

Exterior assist

Throughout her lecture, Anikeeva credited any impression her operate could have on culture on the interdisciplinary mother nature of materials science — the willingness to search to other fields for solutions to difficult-to-crack troubles.

For instance, figuring out how to cause the proper neuron would come from microbiology. Anikeeva turned to the operate of a Stanford College bioengineering workforce that used proteins from a microorganism identified as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a one-mobile algae that takes advantage of light-weight to propel hairlike appendages known as flagella and swim. That identical, light-pushed mechanism can be applied to stimulate a specific neuron. It is a neuroscience exploration process acknowledged as optogenetics.

“We can now manipulate neurons that we want by working with light and go away the rest — bystander neurons — by yourself, keeping away from side effects,” Anikeeva said.

The trouble of dimension would require a unique sort of considering. For a material that could snake by way of the squishy softness of an organ like the mind — Anikeeva introduced a foodstuff-quality mind from the butcher to screen — she turned to telecommunications. Fiber-optic cables like these used to make extended-length calls were being engineered to deliver electrical, optical, and chemical signals to the mind. But the substance that would make up these types of fibers is rigid and could injury brain tissue.

Space for Jell-O?

As it turns out, the hydrogels that give the dessert its jiggly texture are identical to the elastic properties of the brain.

“Those are polymers that can take in important portions of drinking water and swell and presume the mechanics of the brain quite specifically,” Anikeeva stated. Researchers can tune the substance to mimic “every sort of neural tissue.”

But to force a fiber with the home of a “wet noodle” into the mind needs however a different disciplinary detour — this time into the artwork environment. Feel of a paint brush, Anikeeva stated. Its delicate bristles couldn’t puncture anything at all, in no way intellect a mass like a mind.

When dipped into paint and permitted to dry, however, its bristles harden and can provide as a wedge to penetrate comfortable tissue. This is precisely the way Anikeeva’s hydrogel-fiber gadget works in lab experiments on mice. On entering the brain, “it re-hydrates, and now assumes the mechanics of the mind and can shift stealthily collectively with the mind, creating no damage.”

A different piece of Anikeeva’s study examines the way cells respond to thermal stimulation, which could direct to new types of therapeutic treatment plans. To start with, minuscule nanoparticles are injected into the system then they’re heated up with a magnetic industry. That opens up channels in close by neurons, activating them.

Figuring out how to do that, once more, demanded functioning across quite a few fields. For example, employing warmth to promote neuronal exercise comes from knowledge and application of mobile biology — “You drink very hot tea, your tongue burns. You go out for Thai meals, your tongue burns,” Anikeeva mentioned, since the protein that responds to warmth also responds to the spice in very hot peppers. To make certain that nanoparticles can dissipate heat proficiently, Anikeeva’s workforce relies on supplies chemistry and knowledge of crystal structure — the ordered arrangement of atoms in their make-up — to engineer their magnetic responses.

Combining it all

The mix of disciplines on perspective was what brought Catherine Song to the party. She went to Princeton College as an undergraduate and moved to the Boston location to operate at Massachusetts Normal Clinic in a neurology lab.

“In undergrad I did a whole lot of organic and natural chemistry — which is amazing, but I felt a lot of the motion in that is toward drug improvement and wanting at distinct enzymes and metabolic pathways,” states Track, who is contemplating about accomplishing graduate operate in interdisciplinary analysis. “I seriously like the granular aspect of investigation and chemistry and components, but how to mix all that is really fascinating.”

1st-yr undergraduate college students Mishael Quraishi and Karen Lei were being also drawn to the lecture’s multifaceted topic. Quraishi, a freshly declared supplies science important, read in the talk evidence that she’s in the ideal spot of analyze.

“I’m fascinated in not only resources issues but also how they can be used to better social concerns, so health-treatment spheres — entrepreneurship is also some thing I’m fascinated in,” Quraishi says. “All of these interdisciplinary points I feel like DMSE permits me to check out several of individuals passions.”

Lei, who alongside with Quraishi also attended the Wulff Lecture in October featuring Department of Biological Engineering head Angela Belcher, famous the latest pattern of connecting disciplines specifically with biology.

“If you appeared at the 1900s, biology was incredibly a lot a lot more pure science — molecular biology wanting into DNA framework, RNA,” claims Lei, who’s majoring in physics. “Now, a lot more and far more individuals are wanting at biology as a new form of frontier the place you integrate it with engineering, you combine it with resources science, combine it with electronic engineering as perfectly.”

Adds Quraishi: “It also tends to be more about innovation and style and design fairly than discovery. As soon as you find the concluded DNA, how can you iterate on it?”

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