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The Future of Healing the Brain

Ali Rezai

Qs by Jake Stump
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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The new leader of the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute speaks matter-of-factly about magnetic waves treating depression and chip implants transmitting brain signals. It sounds more like science fiction or the basis for a “Twilight Zone” episode. But it’s all real, and hopefully soon these futuristic methods of combating and preventing diseases and disorders will seem as routine as a thermometer under the tongue.

In late 2017, Dr. Ali Rezai arrived at WVU from the Ohio State University to lead comprehensive clinical and research programs in neurosciences. He is known for his innovative use of brain implants to treat Parkinson’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injury. In one groundbreaking procedure in 2014,  he led a team that restored limb movement for a paralyzed man via chip implant.

Tell me about this groundbreaking chip implant that allowed a paraplegic to use his hands.

This is something we can develop at WVU. At Ohio State, we were able to implant a microchip the size of a pencil eraser head on the brain of an individual who was quadriplegic from a diving accident. He had no control of his arms or legs. The chip can sense thoughts of movements and link those brain signals — those movements have electrical activity in the brain that precedes the movements. When you move or do something, the brain sends signals down the spinal cord to nerves to muscles in a coordinated fashion that allows you to move your arms and legs and have purposeful movements, like picking up a cup of coffee, typing on a keyboard or dressing yourself. We’re able to decode the brain activity and signals linked to the thoughts of movements and we decipher those to an external, wearable sleeve that activates the muscles. With AI and algorithms, it allows you to move the hand that was paralyzed.

Amazing stuff. How do you plan on continuing this momentum at WVU?

Neurological conditions affect 50 million people in the U.S. From Alzheimer’s to dementias, numbers are significantly increasing with aging baby boomers. We’re also dealing with an addiction epidemic. That’s a brain condition. 

For addictions, the No. 1 approach is to do brain imaging. We want to use wearable sensors you can put on your wrists or body to measure addiction. A biomarker for the heart is an EKG. But there are no real brain biomarkers. We hope to use sensors that can detect the psychological correlates of addiction to predict addictive behaviors. 

We’re also looking at new technology to prevent and treat addiction. One area is micro-implants used to curb chronic pain without the need for opioids. These would be micro-pellets injected and delivered in the back or leg that would dissolve over several months. The pellets would deliver pain medication that is not in opioids or steroids. This minimizes the need for pills. Targeted therapies for chronic pain will stop addiction at the root.

I’ve read that you hold 54 patents. How does that tie in with your medical research?

I have 54 patents? I lost count (laughs). The patents are there to help accelerate technologies. The reason for a patent is to bring elements of research and innovation and to globalize them, and to bring more patients to WVU. We want to attract new companies and technologies to West Virginia like we did in Ohio. We’re working with engineering, business and medical centers. It’s not just one doctor or one program. We’re linking it up to different areas. That’s when discoveries are made and the magic happens.