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Penn State launches Center for Neurotechnology in Mental Health Research

8 November 2021
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Woman wearing gloves looks through microscope
Nikki Beloate, assistant research professor, peers through a microscope in the laboratory of Nanyin Zhang, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the newly established Center for Neurotechnology in Mental Health Research. She is one of several researchers across Penn State who will contribute to the center. Credit: Kelby Hochreither

Penn State is launching a University-wide center to bridge fundamental research to understand the brain and mind with potential clinical applications for diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. The Center for Neurotechnology in Mental Health Research already includes 19 faculty members from 10 units in four colleges, including the College of Engineering, the College of Health and Human Development, the College of Medicine, and the Eberly College of Science.

Financially supported by the College of Engineering, the College of Health and Human Development, the Eberly College of Science and the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the center will help facilitate inter- and cross-disciplinary research by leveraging a variety of tools and techniques available at Penn State, according to Nanyin Zhang, founding director of the center and professor of biomedical engineering.

“The brain is perhaps the last organ that we know little about, which makes brain-related disease the forefront of biomedical research,” Zhang said. “Given its enormous complexity, mental health research relies on multimodal approaches and requires information to be collected at multiple dimensions and at multiple scales.”

According to Zhang, Penn State is uniquely positioned to translate basic research to clinical application.

“With the infrastructure, expertise and high enthusiasm found at Penn State, the University has the opportunity to lead the emerging field of engineering in mental health,” Zhang said. “The Penn State neural engineering capacities are extensive, and there is a strong desire and need among faculty from across the University to apply these techniques to solving critical issues in the field of mental health.”

Such neural engineering capacities at Penn State include the High-Field Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility, which enables micrometer-scale — about the size of a single bacterium —imaging in living tissue and functional imaging, where signals in the brain can be viewed in real time as participants play games or interact with others. Other tools and techniques include work conducted in the Center for Neural Engineering and other labs at Penn State, such as ultrasound imaging and optical imaging, capable of mapping brain function at high spatial resolution; optogenetics and chemogenetics, which allow researchers to manipulate neural activity with high specificity; and electrophysiology, considered the gold standard for measuring neural activity.

“The time for this initiative is now — mental health has become and will continue to be a central topic in medicine for the next several decades,” said Thomas Gould, department head and Jean Phillips Shibley Professor of Biobehavioral Health in the College of Health and Human Development. Gould serves as the center’s associate director. “A tremendous amount of effort and resources have been invested worldwide with the aim of solving mental health problems. Unique strengths at Penn State present an excellent opportunity for us to contribute to this fast-developing field in a highly impactful and visible way.”

The center is at the beginning of a planned three-year start-up phase, during which Zhang and Gould plan to work with other faculty at Penn State to build a community of those conducting preclinical research in mental health by applying neuroscience techniques. As the community forms, the second goal of the center’s first phase is to integrate datasets collected across separate research projects to develop a comprehensive database on individual brain function domains and their common features.

“Engineering is central to the future of health care, including mental health care,” said Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean in the College of Engineering. “Under Dr. Zhang’s leadership, this center embodies the type of strong partnership between engineering and disciplines traditionally focused on health and wellbeing that enables innovative research and care.”

The center’s second phase will focus on building a research program to facilitate the translation of the preclinical research to clinical use.

“The field of neuroscience has been making tremendous advances,” said Lora Weiss, senior vice president for research at Penn State. “Harnessing multiple modes of imaging at multiple resolutions will help understand mechanisms associated with mental health and can lead to more accurate diagnosis and treatment options for mental diseases. We are excited to have such a talented team tackling these issues with advanced technologies.”