Brain illustration

It is our most complex organ — one that literally controls our every move. The brain is the command center of our bodies that, if attacked by disease or impacted by injury, can change a person’s life forever.

Preventing these diseases and injuries, and developing future treatments that can save and improve lives, requires diverse expertise from across the STEM spectrum. Brain health is not just a priority for research scientists or medical doctors; it is also a fundamental area for engineers, who play a crucial role in discovering and implementing many groundbreaking solutions that improve brain health.

In the Cockrell School of Engineering, teams of faculty and students are focusing on the brain — drawing on their problem-solving skills and creating new technologies to tackle, among others, four of the most common life-threatening brain conditions.


Brain Tumors

Whether benign or malignant, brain tumors are abnormal tissue masses that put pressure on the brain. They can lead to vision problems, physical ailments, behavior changes and, in many instances, devastating tragedies, and they are the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in people aged 15–39.

Patients are typically treated with surgery, radiation and systematically delivered chemotherapy, which delivers chemotherapy drugs to the entire body. But new, more targeted therapy methods are currently being tested, including one that involves surgically removing a piece of bone from the skull and using a single-port catheter to directly inject chemotherapy drugs into the brain tumor. However, single-port catheters often do not provide enough coverage in delivering the drugs to the tumor, which can lead to tumor recurrence.

That’s why Chris Rylander, mechanical engineering associate professor, and Ph.D. student Egleide Elenes have developed a new catheter that has the ability to deliver chemotherapy drugs to a brain tumor in different places and at a large volume, which could decrease tumor recurrence and the need for multiple insertions in the skull.

The arborizing catheter has biocompatible microneedles made from optical fibers that can spread out like branches on a tree, allowing it to cover more area as it delivers chemotherapy.

“Current standard treatment just isn’t effective enough,” Elenes said. “We are really trying to develop a product that will impact the lives of people suffering from brain tumors.”

Before pursuing clinical trials, the researchers are working to incorporate the catheter into an MRI imaging system that will help surgeons better analyze and monitor the effectiveness of the therapy.


Alzheimer’s Disease

The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most mysterious brain conditions. Nerves in the brain degenerate for uncertain reasons and cause progressive problems with memory, judgment and thinking as a person ages. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and it is estimated that more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Using the retina as a test-bed, a team of Cockrell School faculty and students are partnering with alumni and biomedical engineers at the University of Texas Medical Branch to take an outside-the-box approach to the detection of the disease. The team, which believes that the same nerve cell and neuron changes that occur in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s may also be occurring in the retina, is working to build innovative instruments that may help doctors detect Alzheimer’s in the eye.

Led by biomedical engineering professor and ophthalmologist Dr. Grady Rylander, the team has developed an imaging device that uses scattering angle diverse Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) to infer whether the retinal ganglion cells are changing in the retina. OCT provides imagery at a much higher resolution than other imaging techniques, such as MRI or ultrasound. The team is also using a high-powered fluorescence microscope developed by biomedical engineering professor Thomas Milner to see what’s actually triggering the changes.

Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that needs new tools for detection,” Rylander said. “If we can gain better insight into the mechanism and progression of Alzheimer’s, we can improve intervention and better manage degenerative conditions much earlier in the process.”




When a stroke occurs, blood flow and oxygen are interrupted to an area of the brain causing the affected tissue to start deteriorating. The body parts and functions that are controlled by the damaged cells — such as speech and physical movement — can become impaired.

Cell repair and patient recovery often depends on where the stroke occurred in the brain and how much damage occurred, but more than two-thirds of survivors will have some type of disability.

With an eye toward improving blood restoration medication and rehabilitation methods for stroke patients, Cockrell School engineers are collaborating with a neurosurgeon at St. David’s HealthCare on a new approach. Biomedical engineering professor Andrew Dunn and his team are developing a laser-based technique, called multi-exposure speckle imaging (MESI), that can be used to accurately measure blood flow after a stroke. The technique expands a laser to illuminate an entire area of the brain at once. When the laser reflects off of tissue, it provides a grainy or speckle pattern, allowing doctors and researchers to analyze the fluctuations in the speckles and convert that information into a motion map that identifies blood flow and blocked arteries.

“By gaining a better understanding of how the brain is remodeling itself, we hope to use MESI as a tool to inform stroke rehabilitation strategies and help patients recover faster,” Dunn said.

In looking to improve the physical rehabilitation for people who have suffered from a stroke, Rick Neptune, mechanical engineering department chair and director of the Cockrell School’s Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab, analyzes those with post-stroke hemiparesis, or weakness of one side of the body. Neptune studies a person’s gait and walking abilities through musculoskeletal modeling, computer simulation and experimental analyses. His research also involves designing and building custom orthotic devices that have helped people live better and more active, independent lives after a stroke.

“A stroke can have devastating effects that can lead to long-term disabilities,” Neptune said. “Our goal is to tailor and personalize rehabilitation programs, develop devices and create technologies that improve a patient’s physical abilities and overall quality of life.”


Traumatic Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injuries are most often caused by sudden blows or bumps to the head. The bruising and damaged blood vessels and nerves can result in the brain functioning abnormally and can lead to significant mental impairment.

While falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury, sports injuries are one of the most high profile. For instance, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by repeated concussions, has appeared in headlines after studies linked it to football-related head trauma. Acknowledging that the problem is in desperate need of a new solution, one group of Cockrell School engineers are working to prevent CTE and other traumatic brain injuries from happening at all — combining extraordinary materials with innovative design to offer better protection.

Associate professor Carolyn Seepersad, research scientist Michael Haberman and their team have developed new impact-absorbing structures — negative stiffness (NS) honeycombs — that bounce back into shape after an impact. Conventional honeycomb structures lose their protective properties after only one impact. The team’s NS honeycomb structures, insular panels of repeating cells in a variety of shapes and configurations, are capable of elastic buckling, allowing them to recover their shape after repeated impacts.

“Whether you’re serving our country in uniform, playing in a big game, or just driving or biking to work, the potential for multiple collisions or impacts over time — however big or small — is a reality,” Seepersad said. “We believe that this technology, when constructed in future helmets and bumpers, could reduce or even prevent many of the blunt-force injuries we see today.”

Texas Engineer Monogram