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Ohio State's first Brain Health Hack explores next-generation wellness solutions

At the root of treating societal issues such as addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, or even traumatic brain injury, is the need to understand how the human mind works. 

Scientists at The Ohio State University are teaming up to find more ways to learn how technology and engineering can help accomplish this goal. In 2018, the university launched its first Brain Health Hack to explore new realms of treatment.

Watch a short video recap of the event.

The 2019 event is scheduled from Friday March 22 to Sunday March 24 at the James Cancer Hospital. Hackathons typically team up students, faculty of multi-disciplinary scientific minds, with the goal of solving societal issues and creating new technology to address them – typically, in one or two manic days of sleepless work. 

In this case, however, participants are encouraged to go home and sleep at the end of each day. As co-organizer Jessica Buskirk lightheartedly pointed out, “Manic days of sleepless work does not equal brain health.”

Buskirk is the director of operations at the Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance, which collaborated on the concept launched by the Chronic Brain Injury (CBI) program. CBI is one arm of the ongoing Discovery Themes Initiative at Ohio State, bringing together funding, faculty and strategy to solve worldwide issues. Members further cooperated with faculty at the university’s Neuroscience Research Institute. Electrical and computer engineers such as Liang Guo, Kevin Passino and Emre Ertin also served among the mentors. 

Kedar HiremathKedar Hiremath, program director for CBI, said there are a couple innovation models on campus he drew inspiration from, like the MakeOHI/O student hackathons or the student-industry INNOVATE-O-thons led by the Institute for Materials Research

Having a hackathon geared toward addressing brain health posed a unique opportunity, he said.

“It allowed us to take students from different backgrounds and have them work together,” Hiremath said. “Especially in neurotechnology development.”

In the end, a total of 35 students took part in nine teams, guided by 13 judges and two mentors. Their goal was to focus on solving three sponsored challenges within Ohio State programs. The three winning teams had their projects recognized at the 2018 Brain Health and Performance Summit: 

1. Team Pain, Pain Go Away: James Finefrock, Mitchell Giese, Leo Kodish and Liam Stalker created a virtual reality game intended to distract patients from pain.
2. Team Pheno: David Packer, Lauren Shingler, McKayla Tassy, Sidney Tobias and Ethan Wolfe created a mobile app for digital phenotyping.
3. Team Sanitas: Mohammed Abouelsoud, Jeffrey Kreindler, Alex Li, Samuel Stevens and Anmol Takiar created a mobile app for the detection and monitoring of tremors.

In another bonus, Hiremath said, some students even joined university research groups to further their knowledge and continue to support faculty.

Marcie Bockbrader, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Assistant Professor and Physician in the College of Medicine, got involved in the hackathon discussions early.

“We were thinking about different ways to use technology to improve our interventions with patients for health and wellness,” she said.

One emerging form of research in this realm, she said, is virtual and augmented reality.

“Ways to help patients improve their stress, to decrease the need for opioids for pain reduction. Ways that we can transition care from the hospital setting into the home setting,” Bockbrader said. “Just using technology to improve the patient’s mindset. That led us to think: Hey wouldn’t it be great if we got some of our young, bright minds at Ohio State to help us put together some novel apps that we could maybe try out?”

Smit Patel, an Ohio State College of Pharmacy Professions student who took part in the hack, said the traditional focus is on prescription drugs. His group was trying to emphasize patient emotional care.

"Does the patient feel good? Does the patient feel alive? We wanted to bring that empowerment feeling, and that happy feeling, into the patient," he said.

Neuroscience student Jack Rubertus, also part of the group, said he is trying to alleviate patient pain by studying how the brain responds to different stimuli.

"We think like a patient," he said. "We slowly transition them from reality into virtual reality. We also incorporate more of the social media aspect, which targets that sense of loneliness patients feel while they are in hospital care for extended moments of time."

In one application of this, a computer device takes the patient on a guided meditative journey, with the sensation of being on a boat floating into the sunset.

“It calms neuron firing,” Rubertus said.

What is great about the Brain Health Hack concept, Hiremath said, is having students working together with faculty members, who are mentoring them and providing input on their ideas. He said these are professors in different scientific areas students might never get the opportunity to meet.

“They are going to be exposed to things they never thought were possible,’” Hiremath said. 

Students are fortunate to have the diversity of the Ohio State campus in this regard, he said, because of the resources available – especially for undergraduate students.

He said the student response from the hackathon was overwhelmingly positive.

“Our next step is to help the students learn about commercialization of their work,”Hiremath said. “Next year, we hope to have more industry sponsors, and perhaps to do this semiannually instead of annually.”

Article by: Ryan Horns, ECE/IMR Communications Specialist