Funding in the University Research Space Goes to Innovators

It seems these days it is getting harder and harder for researchers to get the funding they need. Entire departments dealing with Psychology and Human Research are full of highly trained individuals. However, without funding, their futures are unsure. The solution might exist in working in advancements of technology that can truly qualify for providing “intellectual merit.”

Intellectual merit, a common phrase for those familiar with NIH/NSF grant writing, refers to the nature of a grant, in that it must provide an advancement in the field of work, as well as provide a societal benefit. This can be a tall order in some University settings, when access to the latest and greatest equipment can be prohibitively expensive. That grant from the NIH from four years ago helped purchase new equipment, as well as get a groundbreaking paper published. But the money has been exhausted, and the same study today doesn’t seem meet the standard of yester-year.

What research needs is a way to author a study, collect information, publish, and then make modifications to their study, in order to continue to contribute knowledge to their field. Throughout this process, grant writers can rest assured that their lab will be able to reliably generate new material. As well as, most importantly, continue to receive funding. What is a lab if the best people have had to leave due to funding shortfalls?

An area of particular interest to myself is in brain stimulation, or neurostimulation. If we examine the field, there are quite a few modalities for stimulating the brain, and then recording the feedback to then check which brain regions were affected. As well as determining if there were physiological and/or subjective changes reported by the subject, researchers can use EEG, fMRI, and ECG to varying degrees of accuracy and ease-of-use to check the data against their hypothesis.

Transcranial Electrical Stimulation, which comes in many flavors, tACS, tDCS, and tRNS represent some differing ways to change the electrical activity in a large portion of the subjects brain. While it is a very straightforward technology, it is very limited by its accuracy, and the tendency for electrical return paths to flow mostly through the skin of the subjects head, and to avoid penetrating the skull, and actually getting into the cerebral cortex. The US military has experimented with tDCS on snipers, and has found it may have enhancements to provide for increased situation awareness. Meaning, snipers are more accurate while receiving electrical stimulation.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation has already been used in some Brain-to-Brain interfaces in the past few years; allowing one subject to send binary information to another subject via TMS stimulation. While it might take a prohibitively long amount of time to send me your thoughts on the Hodgkin-Huxley models for neuronal action potentials through a BCI, the potential that TMS has revealed is quite an exciting development. A fairly large barrier to entry for TMS is that the cost of a fully capable unit can run between $50,000 to $500,000, with all the bells and whistles. Not to mention, it is limited in it’s ability to speedily pulse the magnetic coils. So that even if you wanted to transfer some type of data into the cortex, it might always transmit at the speed of Morse code.

Transcranial Ultrasound Stimulation is a seemingly new technology in the field of brain stimulation, however, it has been used for cortical stimulation for over half a century. While Ultrasound is commonly used for its imaging capabilities, another use is in its ability to stimulate clusters of neurons in the human brain. TUS may hold a very special place in race for grant proposals that meet the “intellectual merit” requirement. Currently, Ultrasound is a bit of a hot topic among government research organizations. If fully accounted for, the grants being rewarded are more often than not, going to groups using Transcranial Ultrasound Stimulation to explore the inner workings of the human brain.

An Ultrasound machine, if designed for the needs of the modern University lab, can hit many unmet needs. Primarily, a study that uses Ultrasound as its core technology can make the case for its contribution to society, as well as enhancing the knowledge in the field of neuroscience. Secondarily, an Ultrasound device, which solely transmits pulses of Ultrasonic waves, and has been stripped of its imaging capabilities; which are mostly useless for brain stimulation, can be bought with the budget of even a small research group. One more extra benefit, is that the protocols for a study, having been created, can be re-used as the foundation for many more studies. You see, Ultrasound provides a variety of parameters to modify, such as the Pulse Rate Frequency, the Ultrasound Frequency, and even the duty cycle, and how often the pulses are fired per second. Pulses per second, usually set between 4Hz, 12Hz, 30Hz, or 60Hz, offer a way to explore the connection between EEG data and the corresponding stimulation pulses. Can pulsing Ultrasound on the right pre-frontal cortex at 12Hz replicate the state of a brain that is calm and relaxed?

Whichever tool a research group uses, as long as they are in need of funding, it is important to keep in mind how they will meet the needs of tomorrows standard for intellectual merit. With the marked increase of baby boomers who will need neurological care, it is likely the demand for neuroscience research on the cutting edge, will increase. Let’s hope the funding for these necessary studies will increase as well.