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USC engineers work on detection of brain malfunctions

It's the second time in three years that USC researchers have received the National Science Foundation Award.

Three USC Viterbi School of Engineering researchers have received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a joint research project on a wireless, multisensor system for the early detection of shunt malfunctions in people with excessive brain fluid.

“I’m pretty thrilled to win this,” said principal investigator Ellis Meng, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical engineering. “We get to use some of the technologies we’ve been incubating, including sensors that work in water.”

The NSF’s Office of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) awarded the four-year grant, the second time in recent years that a team of USC researchers has landed the competitive award.

Meng and co-principal investigators Malancha Gupta, an assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science, and James Weiland, a biomedical engineer and ophthalmologist, hope to devise a way to embed or integrate sensors into shunts for people with hypocephalus. A chronic, incurable condition characterized by excess fluid in the brain, hypocephalus affects an estimated one in 1,000 newborns and includes symptoms such as headaches, nausea and dizziness.

At present, about 75 percent of the shunts fail within 10 years, typically becoming clogged. Because doctors have no way to monitor the shunt’s effectiveness externally, they often have to wait a while before diagnosing the problem. In the meantime, patients suffer and medical costs rise with repeated doctors’ visits.

As envisioned, the trio of USC researchers would embed or integrate multiple wireless sensors onto shunts. Physicians, using digital handheld devices, could take readings to test for changes in pressure and flow. The ability to quickly and accurately diagnose shunt problems, Meng said, would decrease patient suffering and lower medical costs. Doctors typically replace faulty shunts.

With the proposed system, “we can get data whenever we want, wherever we want,” Meng said.

As principal investigator, Meng will manage the research project. Gupta will design coatings and materials to protect sensors within the body and increase their flexibility. Weiland will collaborate on sensor materials and conduct tests on the device as it evolves.

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USC engineers work on detection of brain malfunctions

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