WashU engineers working to improve technology to treat Parkinson’s, other disorders

Innovative technology using neurostimulation has created new treatment options for patients with neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease, tremors or chronic pain. A team of engineers at Washington University in St. Louis is working to develop a solution that will allow clinicians to fine tune this technology with more control and precision.

Jr-Shin Li
Jr-Shin Li

Jr-Shin Li, associate professor of electrical & systems engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, has received a three-year, $476,658 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a framework for optimal control of the dynamics in the brain's networks through neurostimulation. With better control, clinicians could more directly target the neuronal network, both by location and with precise timing, allowing for betting understanding of brain function and potentially better treatment.

Currently, the technology is used to activate or deactivate the entire neural network, rather than individual neurons, and without regard to timing or patterns of activity. Li will use his expertise in formal systems theory, computational neuroscience and developing mathematical formulations to create frameworks for better control of the neurons.

"This research will advance our understanding of dynamic complex networks abundant in nature and contribute to computational optimal control and ensemble systems theory by investigating nonconventional problems," Li said. "Over the past five years, our research team has pioneered the field of ensemble control and the deployment of systems and control theory to model and understand brain network dynamics. Our unique blend of formal systems theory and computational neuroscience will form the basis for creating principled, but highly meaningful control solutions."

With co-principal investigator ShiNung Ching, assistant professor of electrical & systems engineering, Li will release software developed through the research under an open-source license. They also will establish an independent study course titled "Neural Control and Engineering with Clinical Applications." In addition, the team will work with the university's Institute for School Partnership to offer summer workshops on systems theory, mathematics and neuroscience to local K-12 students.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 88 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, more than 900 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.