Your child takes a hit in youth soccer, but insists she’s fine.

What to do? Concussions and mild traumatic brain injury have drawn increasing concern in recent years, from the military to the National Football League and youth sports. But diagnosis remains tricky.

A University of Houston researcher is seeking to change that, developing a test that could allow for immediate testing to definitively show signs of trauma to the brain.

Technology has revolutionized everything from the way we shop to the way we listen to music and keep up with friends. Health care hasn’t been immune. From efforts to quickly and accurately diagnose brain trauma to more closely targeting nanoparticles in drug delivery, researchers at the University of Houston are creating state-of-the-art technologies to improve the delivery of health care.

Here’s a look at some of what we’re working on:
“The idea is, instead of the patient going to the lab, we ultimately want to bring the lab to the patient in the form of a portable device that can do on-the-spot testing,” said George Zouridakis, professor of engineering technology and associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Technology.

The work, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and conducted with colleagues at the Huntington Medical Research Institutes and elsewhere, is focused on neurons in the brain and the way they work to connect different portions of the brain.

Damage from a concussion doesn’t show up on conventional imaging systems, and diagnosis now involves a standard questionnaire and, often, self-reported symptoms. The damage can be cumulative, so it’s important to effectively diagnose and treat initial injuries.

Zouridakis and his collaborators record brain activity through electroencephalography and magnetoencephalography and compare the result with those of healthy brains. He said the resulting images show clear differences—healthy brains have strong connections toward the center of the brain, while damaged brains tend to show stronger connections along the perimeter.

The work is still in the lab but ultimately could be adapted to a portable system, allowing soldiers, athletes and others to be diagnosed and begin treatment immediately, he said.

Wearable Technology

Can your smartwatch check out your mental state? UH engineer Rose Faghih is working to make it happen.

Faghih, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, studies how wearable devices such as Fitbits and Apple watches could be used to track brain function. Now that requires attaching electrodes to the scalp to measure brain activity.

Current wearable technologies track heart rate as an indicator of stress, but Faghih is using a $175,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to instead analyze data from the skin to measure cognitive brain states related to stress.

“Using cortisol data, we could see that a patient is at risk of developing chronic fatigue syndrome before it occurs, for example,” she said. “Instead of waiting to go see the doctor, the patient would have information that they need to be seen sooner.”

Targeted Nanotechnology

Targeted drug delivery holds promise for improving treatment for a number of conditions, while limiting side effects. Biomedical engineer Sheereen Majd is focused on tailoring nanoparticles to deliver drugs with increased precision.

Nanoparticles can be loaded with tiny amounts of medication and used to deliver treatment to tumors and other disease sites. But there are limits to how precisely they can be targeted. Majd, backed by a $500,000 NSF CAREER Award, is working to tag the nanoparticles with recognition molecules to improve targeting.

To do that, she will draw upon two different systems used as nanodelivery vehicles: nanoliposomes and polymer nanoparticles.

“Our hope is to marry the two so we can overcome their limitations and have a truly tremendous delivery vehicle—robust, highly specific and highly efficient,” Majd said. “We are hoping to minimize the off targeting and to use less medicine to get an effective dose where it needs to be.”