CLEMSON — Stephen Foulger of Clemson University is leading a team that has received $6 million to develop a new way of stimulating specific parts of the brain in what could be the first step toward treatments for seizures and illnesses ranging from addiction to depression.

If it works like researchers hope, patients would someday ingest tiny particles that would lodge themselves near light-sensitive proteins in the brain. When hit with  X-rays, the illuminated particles would activate changes in brain function.

Stephen Foulger works in his lab at Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, or COMSET.

Stephen Foulger works in his lab at Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, or COMSET.

The project puts Clemson researchers and their teammates at the forefront of optogenetics. It’s a cutting-edge field that often involves using light to open and close synaptic channels in the brain, which can help change behavior.

Foulger said it will be years before optogenetics could be used in treatments, but the potential is huge.

“3D printing saw an explosion in terms of its development and applications in the industrial world a few years ago, and optogenetics is now experiencing a similar growth in the academic neuroscience community,” Foulger said. “We anticipate widespread adoption of the technology we develop by the neuroscience community at large, both nationally and internationally.”

Funding for the four-year project comes from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.

The project brings together chemists, engineers and neuroscientists from Clemson, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of New Mexico and the University of South Carolina.

Rajendra Bordia, chair of Clemson’s department of materials science and engineering, congratulated the team on the grant.

“Dr. Foulger has brought together a uniquely qualified team of researchers,” Bordia said. “The level of funding reflects the creativity of the ideas and the hard work that Dr. Foulger has put behind them. Through this project, the team is beginning to build a research infrastructure spanning three states and four universities to address one of the major scientific challenges: understanding how the brain works.”

Researchers hope the research will lay the groundwork for a noninvasive way of targeting specific areas of the brain. The amount of X-ray radiation involved would be at routine medical levels or lower.

Preliminary results have been encouraging. A team of Clemson researchers went to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in January to run experiments aimed at learning whether it would be possible to change the synaptic behavior in brain cells harvested from a rat.

“It worked,” Foulger said.

With the funding they have received, researchers will begin to create nanoparticles that are many times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The nanoparticles will have a scintillating shell, allowing them to emit light when exposed to radiation, and will be engineered to target light-sensitive ospin proteins in the brain.

The nanoparticles will be coated in a polymeric shell similar to how commonly available pharmaceuticals are made. The shell acts like handles for various chemical components.

Some components will allow the nanoparticles to enter the body without being rejected. Other components would cause the nanoparticles, once circulating in the bloodstream, to sequester themselves near key ospin proteins.

Researchers also plan to coat the nanoparticles with different dyes so that the nanoparticles can be tailored to different ospin proteins.

“Whatever the sensitivity to light, we can develop a nanoparticle that can couple into them,” Foulger said.

The research addresses two major national initiatives. The White House’s BRAIN Initiative is focused on revolutionizing understanding of the human brain. The National Academy of Engineering has identified reverse-engineering the brain as one of its 14 grand challenges in the 21st century.

The grant is part of the EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 investment strategy. It seeks to build national research strength by initiating collaborations across multiple institutions. This year’s round of awards support 27 institutions in 18 eligible jurisdictions.

“These awards represent a tremendous value for the scientific community, as they foster research into some of the most pressing issues facing U.S. society while simultaneously supporting collaborative research programs and workforce development,” said Denise Barnes, head of NSF EPSCoR. “Whether by expanding our knowledge of the brain, or by improving how our water, food and energy systems work efficiently together, these projects hold the promise of transforming our daily lives.”

Foulger is the primary investigator on the project involving Clemson. He is the Gregg-Graniteville Endowed Chair and Professor and the director of Clemson’s Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, or COMSET. He is a faculty member in the departments of materials science and engineering and bioengineering.

The co-primary investigators are Lori McMahon, the associate director of the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Jason Weick, an assistant professor in the department of neurosciences at the University of New Mexico.

Two Clemson faculty members are expected to play key roles in the research. Jeffrey Anker, an associate professor of analytical chemistry at Clemson, is lending his X-ray expertise to the project. Joe Kolis, a professor of inorganic chemistry, will make some of the nanoparticles.

Tanju Karanfil, Clemson’s vice president for research, said EPSCoR grants have the power to be transformational.

“The team that Dr. Foulger has assembled is designed to build a national research infrastructure,” Karanfil said. “Their efforts to better understand the brain are of the utmost importance to the nation and every human being on the planet. I’d like to thank the National Science Foundation for its support.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the award is richly deserved.

“Dr. Foulger has assembled an interdisciplinary team that embodies the comprehensive, integrated vision that drives discovery and builds capacity in science, technology, engineering and math,” Gramopadhye said. “The team’s research could shed new light on how the brain works, one of the nation’s top priorities. I’d like to congratulate Dr. Foulger and his team on a job well done.”

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under award number 1632881. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.