Logo: University of Southern California

Finding Nano

Doctoral student Kun Yue to examine how nanotechnology can treat neurological disorders
By: Sam Corey
August 20, 2015 —
Nanotechnology would attach to the brain's axons in a bid to cure multiple sclerosis. Image credit: iStockphoto

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a debilitating immune system disease that affects the lives of 2.3 million people worldwide, according to National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Doctoral student Kun Yue (USC Photo/Steve Cohn)

“Right now we’re doing preliminary research,” Yue said. “Soon, we will be performing simulations using results taken from measurements of rat’s cells in a petri dish to recreate the human brain circuit and the role axons play in these circuits. ”While there is no known cure for MS, Kun Yue, a Ph.D. candidate in the USC Viterbi Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering, has begun examining nanotechnology’s potential in treating neurological diseases by building an artificial brain circuit and examining how nanotechnology can treat MS.

Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional machines at a molecular level that can enable scientists to manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules.

The development of nanotechnology for neuroscience will result in important insights on the brain’s mechanisms, and eventually provide better medical care to patients who suffer from neurological illnesses, such as MS.

MS occurs when an abnormal response of the body’s immune system is directed against the central nervous system.

Within it, the immune system attacks myelin, a fatty tissue that surrounds and protects nerve fibers. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue, and when this occurs, nerve impulses travelling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted.

The specific symptoms are determined by the locations of lesions within the nervous system caused by MS.

Muscles can be adversely affected through the loss of or change in sensation, muscle weakness, very pronounced reflexes, spasms, or difficulty in moving, coordination and balance.

Other MS symptoms include speech impediment, difficulty swallowing, visual problems, fatigue, acute or chronic pain and bladder and bowel difficulties, among others. Emotional problems such as depression or unstable moods are also common.

Through the Research Enhancement Fellowship he earned in 2014, Yue has devised an ambitious interdisciplinary plan to treat neurological disorders through nanotechnology.

This project is currently under the guidance of Alice Parker, USC Viterbi professor of electrical engineering and leader of the USC BioRC Project, a team of engineers who research the reverse engineering of the brain in order to better understand its functions and neurological disorders.

“Technology is ready to take the next step in improving people’s health and lives after exploding in the last decade,” Yue said. “Most people are treating this as a biology problem, but I want to treat it as an engineering problem.”

The nanotechnology material is carbon-based and would be injected. The nanoparticles would attach to axons, the fibers that connect neurons through conducting electrical impulses that transmit information to different nerve cells, muscles and glands.

The goal of this is to reverse engineer the brain so the body’s immune system will stop attacking its central nervous system that consists of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.

Toward that end, Yue plans to build an electrical circuit model of selected brain circuits. This model will help Yue and other researchers understand how disorders, such as MS, occur in the brain so they can begin developing medical treatments.

This will give him a visual picture of how living tissue reacts to neurological disorders, which will give them a clearer understanding of how these diseases affect the brain.

Although the effects and symptoms of MS are well known, finding a cure will take time.

“The human brain is so complicated; there is still so much we don’t understand,” Parker said. “We still have limited knowledge of what occurs in living tissue.”

Parker and Yue estimate this project will take about a decade to yield results. However, they believe it will advance the treatment and understanding of neurological disorders.

The current treatment for these ailments, including MS, is deep brain stimulation, which involves an electrode implanted in the brain through invasive surgery. Nanotechnology can potentially achieve the same results without the risks of major surgery.

“Technology is becoming more central to people’s daily lives,” Yue said. “This isn’t an isolated project. Nanotechnology is emerging, and there is a national initiative to generate more research on this field.”

In this case, Parker said the convergence of growing interest in the human brain, the shrinkage of electronics and a greater emphasis on nanotechnology has fueled her and Yue’s project.

“The human brain is the new frontier,” Parker said. “This is the outer space of this generation, because there is so much we don’t know. We’re just taking steps toward greater understanding, but there is so much potential.”