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SC15 Video Highlights Cutting-Edge Brain Simulations that help Parkinson’s Patients

Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute at the University of Utah helps doctors to pinpoint brain stimulation sites that relieve tremors in Parkinson’s patients and drastically improve quality of life.

An enlightening video series launched by the SC (Supercomputing) conference steering committee in 2013 aims to illustrate how high performance computing is impacting everyday life – from manufacturing to storm prediction to the making of Hollywood blockbusters.  The latest in the series is a short video highlighting the innovative work being done at the University of Utah’s Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute in regards to helping Parkinson’s patients lead more normal lives through deep brain stimulation (DBS).

Although it may sound like something straight from a scene in a science fiction film, new surgery techniques that place a set of wires under the skull to transmit electrical signals to different areas of the brain has gotten even more effective with the help of computers. It's called deep brain stimulation, or DBS. And if the idea of it seems a bit wince-inducing or scary, then understanding the power of what it can do - quiet the tremors associated with Parkinson's disease and other brain disorders - will likely wash away any patient's fears and it is being enhanced via high performance computing and visualization.

FDA-approved in 1997, DBS involves the surgical implantation of a neurostimulator device - a sort of brain pacemaker - into the chest along with a set of wires, known as leads, which together send electrical impulses to various parts of the brain in order to activate brain circuits. This can alleviate the symptoms associated with movement disorders, most commonly Parkinson's, essential tremor, and dystonia.

"We know DBS does not change the progression of Parkinson's disease, but it does improve people's quality of life after they have it," says Paul House, MD, a neurosurgeon and the surgical director of University of Utah Health Care's Movement Disorders Program who himself has done more than 400 of the surgeries at University of Utah Health Care (UUHC).  According to Dr. House, they get a lot more years of improved quality of life. Nationally, UUHC ranks in the top 15 for number of annual DBS procedures with some of the best patient outcomes.

Recently the program hired Christopher Butson, PhD, as its director of neuromodulation research. An expert in neurostimulation devices and neuromodulation therapy, Dr. Butson came to Utah from the Biotechnology and Bioengineering Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. One of Dr. Butson’s goals is to use neurostimulation therapy to improve the lives of patients with a range of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Another key component in Dr. Butson's work: data. UUHC has an extensive high performance computing infrastructure that is the raw material for much of his work. Much of those rich details were not - but now will be - mined for contributions to new discovery and innovation.

"The one thing we aspire to do in my lab is to combine computational models with patient data to create insights that would be difficult to achieve otherwise," he says.

One of Dr. Butson's most promising ideas: an iPad based interactive computer program that creates a three-dimensional picture of the brain. This provides clinicians with a better look at a patient's brain and helps them make better predictions about DBS lead placements, stimulation settings and effects. It also saves time. Clinicians who used the program in a small pilot study reduced device programming time by 99 percent. The program, which allows for simulated stimulation of the brain's circuits, may eventually help enhance the precision of surgical targets and DBS treatment for a multitude of disorders and diseases. Dr. Butson and Co-PI Dr. Michael Okun at the University of Florida were recently awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a clinical trial of this system in a much larger cohort of patients. It's something that until recently couldn't really be done, but has been made possible by advances in medical imaging technology - another area of research that UUHC helped advance.

"Where the field is going is toward circuit-based therapy... and we hope that 3D modeling will allow us to see this in a totally different way," Dr. Butson says. "So integrating the best information we can get from all different types of imaging and incorporating that into predictive models... this is the bleeding edge of DBS research."

To see the brief two minute video go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx2dRIQXnbs.

About SC15

SC15, sponsored by ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and IEEE Computer Society offers a complete technical education program and exhibition to showcase the many ways high performance computing, networking, storage and analysis lead to advances in scientific discovery, research, education and commerce. This premier international conference includes a globally attended technical program, workshops, tutorials, a world class exhibit area, demonstrations and opportunities for hands-on learning. For more information on SC15, please visit: http://www.sc15.supercomputing.org/

About the University of Utah Scientific Computing and Imaging (SCI) Institute

The SCI Institute is an interdisciplinary research institute consisting of more than 200 faculty, staff, and students.  It has established itself as an internationally recognized leader in visualization, scientific computing, and image analysis applied to a broad range of important application.   A particular hallmark of SCI Institute research is the development of innovative and robust software packages, including the SCIRun scientific problem solving environment, Seg3D, ImageVis3D, FEBio, Shapeworks, and FluoRender. All these packages are broadly available to the scientific community under open source licensing and supported by web pages, documentation, and users groups.