Often cited as the most complex structure in the Universe, the human brain is only just beginning to surrender some of its best-kept, deepest-held secrets.
SES members the University of Oxford and University College London (UCL) are making a major contribution to this breakthrough era in brain research – developing and deploying cutting-edge modelling & simulation, medical imaging and image computing, as well as other computer-based tools, to help reveal how and why injury and illness can compromise the brain’s ability to function.
These new insights aren’t just of academic interest; they also offer huge potential to underpin much-needed advances in the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and frightening, fatal conditions such as dementia, and other neurological disorders.
The Final Frontier
Ironically, there is perhaps no greater challenge for human brainpower than unpicking how the brain itself works. In particular, with TBIs causing 10 million deaths or hospitalisations worldwide each year and growth in dementia cases projected to put healthcare resources under unmanageable strain, extending the frontiers of knowledge on how the brain reacts and responds to injury and illness is a pressing priority.
“Exchange of information and cross-fertilisation of ideas are now the norm in the research domain”
– Professor Yiannis Ventikos, UCL
The problem is, as well as being the irreplaceable organ in the human body, the brain is the hardest to explore – largely due to its inaccessibility, encased in the skull, and its immense complexity. In research terms, then, the brain has traditionally attracted much less attention than the heart or the lungs, for instance. But the last few years have seen a game-changing development – the wider harnessing of computational techniques to drive forward research in this vital field.
“Increasingly sophisticated modelling software and high performance computing hardware are delivering a clearer picture of brain behaviour”
– Antoine Jérusalem, Oxford University
“Increasingly sophisticated modelling software and high performance computing hardware are delivering a clearer picture of brain behaviour, from cell level up to whole-brain scale,” says Professor Antoine Jérusalem of Oxford University. “For example, techniques like machine learning  are helping us pinpoint how the ability of neurons  to fire will be affected by deformation and damage resulting from impacts to the head.”
Crucially, such advances at Oxford and UCL are being driven by real-world needs and developed in close collaboration with professionals in the frontline of healthcare delivery.
“We’re just at the start of a very long, very important journey”, say Professor Yiannis Ventikos of UCL. “Establishing and maintaining close links with healthcare practitioners is essential to ensuring that the use of computational tools ultimately leads to the new drugs and treatments urgently needed in the field of brain therapy.”
Finger on the Pulse
- COMUNEM (Computational Multiscale Neuron Mechanics), supported by the European Research Council, has set out to develop a ground-breaking model that boosts understanding of the relationship between neurons’ mechanical and electrochemical behaviour. Embracing all scales from protein level right up to full cell level and integrating a range of numerical techniques, it aims to shed new light on neuron growth or damage, for example. According to Jérusalem: “the model will be made available to the bioengineering and medical communities to improve their knowledge on neuron deformation, growth and electro-signalling, and therefore on slowly evolving diseases such as Alzheimer’s and epilepsy, as well as TBIs and other forms of direct damage to the brain.”
- NeuroPulse, funded by EPSRC  and running until 2020, is using state-of-the-art modelling to explore the interaction between neurons’ mechanical vibrations and their electrophysiological functions. “The goal is to harness this interaction as the basis for a new generation of disruptive, non-invasive technologies that deliver fresh possibilities in the field of neuromodulation, for instance,” Professor Jérusalem
Making Waves Worldwide
Antoine Jérusalem is also Co-Director of the pioneering International Brain Mechanics and Trauma Lab (IBMTL), established in 2013. Involving 36 academics and clinicians based at 18 institutions across Europe and the US, and embracing disciplines ranging from biology, nanoscience and neuroscience to engineering, physics, computing and maths, this informal collaborative network represents an important step forward in the study of the mechanics of brain cells and brain tissue.
Yiannis Ventikos is one of those involved: “Exchange of information and cross-fertilisation of ideas are now the norm in the research domain, and are absolutely critical when trying to break new ground. The IBMTL is bringing that approach to the realm of brain research and helping to open up the application of computational modelling and biomechanical expertise to fields such as the study of dementia.”
Professor Ventikos has also been a key partner in a major European project, VPH-DARE@IT (Virtual Physiological Human’s DementiA Research Enabled by IT), a European Union Large Scale Integrating Project involving 20 partners and aiming to cut diagnosis times for dementia. Currently, diagnosis timeframes vary across the world anywhere from 11 to 36 months from first visit to the GP to definitive diagnosis. “By integrating data gathered using medical imaging, modelling & simulation, Artificial Intelligence and other technologies, we can pick up signs of dementia earlier and reduce and standardise diagnosis times,” Ventikos explains. “At UCL our role has been to apply biomechanical simulation tools to clinical trials that have involved scanning the brains of over a hundred volunteers, to generate insights into how the brain’s transport and metabolism mechanics contribute to the progress of the disease.”
Antoine Jérusalem concludes: “From a computational perspective, by continuing to strengthen software tools and exploiting the supercomputing infrastructure available at institutions like Oxford University and UCL, we can go on making important waves in brain research that eventually improve the lives of millions of people worldwide.”
Prof. Antoine Jérusalem
Department of Engineering Science
University of Oxford
Prof. Yiannis Ventikos
University College London
 Programming computers to learn from the data they process.
 Specialised cells that carry nerve impulses.
 The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Header Image: Head model reconstructed from full-head, high-resolution MRI images (Human Connectome Project, Study ID: MR20170307185242 Subject ID: F3T_2015_16_056).
Image 2: VPH-DARE@IT is delivering new insights vital to accelerating dementia diagnosis.
Tully, B., Ventikos, Y., 2011, Cerebral water transport using multiple-network poroelastic theory: Application to normal pressure hydrocephalus. Journal of Fluid Mechanics, 667, 188-215.
Chou, D., Vardakis, J. C., Guo, L., Tully B. J., Ventikos, Y., 2016, A fully dynamic multi-compartmental poroelastic system: Application to aqueductal stenosis, Journal of Biomechanics, 49(11), 2306-2312.
Guo L. W., Vardakis J. C., Lassila T., Mitolo M., Ravikumar N., Chou D., Lange M., Foroushani A. S., Tully B. J., Taylor A. Z., Varma S., Venneri A., Frangi A. F., Ventikos, Y., 2018, Subject-specific multiporoelastic model for exploring the risk factors associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, Interface Focus, 8(1), 20170019, cover.