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UIC PhD student wins Mary Brazier Young Investigator Paper Award for discovery of brain spike network connected to epilepsy

Biswajit Maharathi

Biswajit Maharathi, a University of Illinois Chicago Bioengineering PhD student, working with faculty in the Richard and Loan Hill Department of Bioengineering and in the Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation, was awarded the Mary Brazier Young Investigator Paper Award for his discovery of networks of epileptic spikes in the brain, and their connection to seizures.

The award, given once every four years by the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology, includes a cash prize of 5,000 euros that will be presented at the next International Congress of Clinical Neurophysiology in November 2022 in Melbourne. He also recently won the CCTS Multidisciplinary Team Science award for this work.

“The award announcement came as a surprise to me, I never thought about receiving this award myself,” Maharathi said. “I’m definitely looking forward to attending the congress in 2022. This work is indeed unique and can provide a great boost to the research in the field of epilepsy.”

His paper, titled “Interictal spike connectivity in human epileptic neocortex,” was published in the December 2018 issue of Clinical Neurophysiology. The research used the electrocorticography (ECoG) information gathered from 10 epilepsy patients who had electrodes placed on their brains in preparation for surgery to treat their condition. Maharathi said that these epilepsy patients also have what are known as interictal spikes, where thousands of neurons all synchronously fire at once in the brain. He noted the spikes have very specific signatures that allow researchers to follow them on an ECoG.

Jeffrey Loeb, professor and head of Neurology and Rehabilitation in the UIC College of Medicine, said he and his researchers have spent a lot of time working with their engineering colleagues to analyze epileptic patients’ seizures and brain activity between those seizures. Researchers use software to track these interictal spikes and then export the data back onto a 3D image of the brain’s surface to find specific areas that have frequent spikes, along with areas that have little activity.

“What’s really important and what spearheaded Biswajit’s project, is the fact that we have both the imaging data and the electrical data tied together, which he then analyzed,” Loeb said. “And that led to his discoveries.”

Neurologists have known about the spikes for years, but a clear understanding of what they mean and the impact they have on patients has eluded them. Maharathi pointed out that despite being a biomarker for epilepsy, researchers are not sure if the spikes are causing seizures or are the brain’s attempt to stop a seizure before it starts. Loeb added that before this study, researcher’s thought the spikes were random.

“When you look at one image of the spikes, they look random. But when you do a connectivity analysis, like Biswajit did, you simplify that random noise into a clear, directional pathway or network of what these spikes look like,” Loeb said. “These spikes have a network of their own, and that’s the major discovery here. Each person’s network is highly reproducible. So that’s another major discovery, these networks are ‘hardwired.’ The circuit board is printed, which gives us an opportunity to fix it and get the brain back to normal.”

Maharathi’s unique background and the opportunity to work with both the neurology and bioengineering departments at UIC have helped him throughout his research. Although his main focus is on bioengineering, he has also been working in the field of neurology for the last five years.

“When you are working with such a complex disease, you need to have a concrete background and understanding of the disease itself to use any kind of engineering,” Maharathi said.

Bioengineering Professor James Patton said Maharathi is passionate about this work and diligently worked to ensure his data and conclusions were sound. Patton added this research demonstrates the power of bringing together smart clinicians from the West side of UIC with the technical knowledge in the engineering school on the East side.

“It’s a perfect marriage. This kind of East-meets-West work only happens because the student is the glue or the catalyst for bringing together busy people on both sides,” Patton said.

Maharathi agreed and said any engineer who wants to work in the medical field needs to be able to interact and work with clinicians who are working with patients because they have the first-hand knowledge of the disease in the field.

“So, UIC having both engineering and medical schools helps because your acquired training in engineering can be applied in medicine,” Maharathi said.

Maharathi is continuing his research in the interictal spiking in human subjects and is also actively working on a parallel animal model of epilepsy. He noted the data being collected from patients awaiting surgery for epilepsy can also help increase the understanding of the brain and its functions in general.

This discovery could also open other research avenues across the board for neurological diseases and disorders, according to Loeb, who said scientists see spikes in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“All of these diseases probably have wiring problems in the brain, and with this work, we can actually detect it and see how the brain is miswired,” Loeb said. “And we can develop ways to fix this miswiring now that we can identify it. I think it’s going to help us in many diseases and psychiatric disorders as well. If you just say its random noise, which is what everyone was saying before, you can’t fix it. But now we have a map and can actually do things to change the map back to normal. If we can do it for epilepsy, we can do it for other diseases.”

By David Brazy, UIC