Pittsburgh startup building device to 'see' inside an injured brain without opening the skull
December 12, 2016 12:00 AM
CerebroScope is a new startup business that is developing a sensing device to detect certain kinds of brain injury, including stroke, TBI and maybe one day, concussion. The promise of the device is much earlier detection and treatment of brain injuries. From left are principals Sam Hund, Eric Singer and Stephen Jones.
By Kris B. Mamula / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Think of a serious brain injury as causing a flood of Christmas lights to blink on inside the skull — a tiny tidal wave tracking across the brain after the earthquake of a stroke or traumatic injury.
Brain cells caught in the electrical storm are left stunned: sodium and water pour inside and potassium rushes out, bloating the cells. Cell death can result.
“The cell is stunned with massive depolarization,” said Stephen C. Jones, founder and managing partner of Uptown-based startup CerebroScope, which is developing a device to detect these brain tsunamis. “Then all hell breaks loose and that sets in motion a vicious cycle, a cascade of lost membrane potential.”
Three-year-old CerebroScope is building a noninvasive, EKG-like device that would be used to sense the changes in the brain caused by injuries, reflecting what’s called cortical spreading depolarization. One tantalizing prospect: The device may one day be used to diagnose concussions — the common cold of head injuries but a black box of neuroscience that affects up to 67,000 high school football players alone each year.
No medical device has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to diagnose concussions. What’s more, concussions cannot be diagnosed by any blood test, X-ray or other medical scan. Current concussion assessment tools track cognitive changes, eye movements and other signs that indicate brain injury.
For now, CerebroScope is focused on stroke and traumatic brain injuries, which suddenly shift brain cells’ electrical charge to positive from negative in a massive cascade, Mr. Jones said. The result can be progressive brain cell death that continues for days after the initial injury, which can lead to death of the patient.
The plan for CerebroScope’s device is to have dozens of electrical leads — maybe triple the 12 leads typically used to monitor the heart’s electrical activity — and to be ready for testing on humans at research partner University of New Mexico in six months. The leads could be attached to the scalp shortly after injury to determine if medical treatment is necessary.
“We think we can detect this from the skin,” said Mr. Jones, a native of Beckley, W.Va.
The idea of injury-induced massive cellular depolarization in the brain has been little more than a curiosity among scientists, occasionally ridiculed, for the last 60 years, according to Bill Shuttleworth, director of the brain and behavioral health institute at the University of New Mexico, CerebroScope’s partner in trying out the company’s medical device in patients.
Although the phenomenon of massive cellular depolarization has been shown in humans and animals after injury with part of the skull removed to accommodate electrodes, that hasn’t been possible using sensors outside the skull — yet.
What’s needed, according to CerebroScope, is a simple way to detect the electrical storm tide roiling the brain so that doctors can stop the spreading damage. The ability to track the wave would allow doctors to find new ways of treating people after a stroke or other serious head injury.
Including Mr. Jones, CerebroScope employs three people and has received a patent for its technology as well as a federal small-business innovation research grant of $700,000.
A wide variety of academic and private researchers, including UPMC, have come up with a way of diagnosing and treating head injuries. What’s more, the University of Cincinnati is leading a research effort along with several other institutions, including the University of Pittsburgh, in exploring a detection approach that is similar to CerebroScope’s as part of a $4.7 million Department of Defense grant.
“It’s a very powerful tool to detect what is the largest electrical event in the brain and without opening the skull,” said Eric Singer, 50, CerebroScope’s medical device engineer.
Sam Hund, CerebroScope’s product engineer, has a personal interest in the company’s success. He has migraine headaches, which begin with aura sensations that sometimes precede the debilitating pain.
In fact, the sensation presaging a migraine is the same kind of electrical brain tsunami that’s associated with severe head injury — minus the cell death, he said.
Another reason Mr. Hund is vested in CerebroScope: He played football as a child and he’s intrigued by the possibility of one day trying the technology to diagnose concussions.
“Concussion symptoms are all over the place,” he said. “We know the brain short-circuits, but nobody knows how.”
For now, CerebroScope’s focus is on serious brain injuries and stroke, which is caused by a blood clot or burst vessel and is a leading cause of disability and death.
Hospital intensive care units could be CerebroScope’s first customers, Mr. Jones said, giving doctors the chance to stop the tide of cellular wreckage that follows traumatic head injuries. Marketing such a device is still years off, but Mr. Jones is undeterred.
“We’re doing something new,” Mr. Jones said. “It would work.”
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