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12/31/2004 - Schimpf Science Seeks Brain’s Secrets

Neurologic science is the comprehensive science of brain research, and Dr. Paul Schimpf, associate professor of engineering at WSU Spokane, is making significant contributions to the field. Schimpf is doing original research in biomedical engineering and received a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund his research. Through his research, Schimpf is building capabilities that could be useful to all sorts of people. When Schimpf’s work is done, he will have created a numerical tool to aid other biomedical researchers seeking non invasive information about the electrical activity of the human brain. This could lead to novel new approaches in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Schimpf has proved that his algorithms work during simulations --- now he is verifying and refining the algorithms by testing real people. Schimpf is setting up a new laboratory in the SIRTI building for the purpose. The equipment used will include an EEG measuring device, a stimulator system, and a “camera cage.”

The usual clinical EEG measuring device uses 19 to 20 electrodes with sharp points that scrape the scalp. For his research, Schimpf will require at least 128 electrodes. Applying 128 electrodes to the scalp in the usual way would be much too time consuming and the subject just might object to all those pinpricks. In addition, each experiment will have to be repeated, and to get verifiable results, the electrodes must be in exactly the same place each time. Schimpf’s solution is a device that has 128 electrodes in a geodesic configuration. The device is springy and each electrode has a tiny sponge. The whole apparatus is dipped in a conductive saline solution before it is applied to the subjects’ heads. The conductive saline on the foam connects to the scalp and transmits the signal.

There is need for great accuracy. To be sure that the electrodes are placed at exactly the same place with each replication, Schimpf uses a cage device with 11 cameras and 22 separate light sources. The person sits in the cage, the equipment takes a picture, and the picture is of sufficient precision so that the exact locations of the electrodes can be reproduced.

To get meaningful brain activity to be measured by the EEG, a stimulator system will be used. The stimulator plays sounds and has a display designed to stimulate a reaction from the subject being tested. The reaction to the stimulus is what causes the electromagnetic signal, or neurologic event being recorded.

To this point in his neuroscience research, Schimpf has developed algorithms for EEG (electroencephalogram) signals for locating the source of neurologic events in the brain. His algorithms were developed based on finite element modeling that uses partial differential equations to find a numeric answer. (See Terabyte Triangle Newsletter, http://www.terabytetriangle.com/index.php/id=5&article_ID=7) Relatively simple to solve for stress on bridges and airplane wings, the equations usually involve multiple derivatives with respect to the three dimensions of space and time. Schimpf’s work extends the application of finite element method to the much more complicated systems required to measure the human brain. His solution is to create a fairly simple, but unorthodox, finite element mesh over the domain that is able to adapt itself as the equation is solved. Solving the problems requires a huge amount of computations using distributed parallel computing across a “Beowulf cluster.”

Possible future uses for Schimpf’s neuroscience research include the ability to predict and control seizures – sort of a pace maker for the brain for epilepsy sufferers. Brain-computer interfaces could benefit the profoundly disabled. Developments in neuro-feedback could be beneficial to aid sufferers with ADHD, addictions, or chronic problems. “But first,” says Schimpf, “we have to find out what the brain is doing.”

Based at SIRTI on the Riverpoint Campus, Professor Schimpf teaches computer engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science courses for WSU Spokane.

To learn more about Schimpf’s research, visit
http://www.spokane.wsu.edu/academic/engineering/schimpf/.

Billie Moreland
 
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