NUI Galway researcher trying to limit ‘brain poking’ by neurosurgeons

14 Mar 2019

NUI Galway’s James Blackwell. Image: Sean Lydon

NUI Galway’s James Blackwell is trying to develop ‘stiffness’ maps of the brain to reduce the need for surgeons to physically poke in people’s brains.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in physics last year, James Blackwell is now a PhD candidate as part of the NUI Galway medical physics research cluster, with competitive funding from the Irish Research Council.

In November last year, Blackwell was named as the winner of the NUI Galway Threesis grand final, a fast-paced event featuring a series of three-minute talks by researchers sharing the story of their research using just three presentation slides in front of three judges.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I’ve always been interested in how and why things work. My secondary school physics teacher, Phil Harte at Ardscoil Rís, Limerick, loved to talk about all aspects of physics, not just what was on the curriculum. This helped foster this sense of curiosity and was a reason why I originally chose to pursue a degree in physics.

My undergraduate degree showed me how physics can be applied to areas like medical physics to help improve people’s lives. The possibility of being able to learn about something completely new and help people at the same time is what compelled me to become a researcher.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on and why is it important?

My work is a collaboration between the School of Physics and the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Applied Mathematics at NUI Galway. Together with my supervisors, Dr Niall Colgan and Prof Michel Destrade, we are trying to create stiffness maps of the brain called elastograms using ultrasound shear waves. The main goal is to detect brain tumours in real time.

When you think of brain surgery, you probably imagine something a bit more advanced than the surgeon poking the brain with their finger to find the right region to cut out, but this is still the case!

We have excellent imaging techniques such as MRI and CT, where tumours can easily be identified before surgery. But, during surgery, part of the skull is removed and the brain is exposed, causing it to deform and ‘shift’. This means that the excellent images taken before surgery are no longer as useful, and the surgeon is effectively flying solo. The surgeon then tries to find the tumours by their sense of touch, using their finger to identify the stiffer areas.

This technique is called palpation. It is highly skilled work by the surgeon, but it is a subjective test based on their experience and expertise. We would like to improve on this approach, by giving them quantitative levels for the stiffness changes in the brain.

We are using ultrasound shear waves to create stiffness maps of tissue. These shear waves move quite slowly, as you can see them move in real time on screen. They move faster through stiffer tissues and slower through softer ones so, by tracking the speed of the shear waves, we can in principle make stiffness maps of the tissue.

Our goal is to make brain stiffness maps in real time that can be used during surgery to help guide surgeons and reduce the need for poking around in your brain!

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Currently, my research is at an early stage and I’m not really thinking that far ahead! A possible application would be a non-invasive imaging technique that could be used during brain surgery to help guide the surgeons to find brain tumours.

Our improved technology and modelling could be applied to replace standard elastography applications in the diagnosis of hydrocephalus, fibrosis, epileptic lesions and Alzheimer’s disease, which are also known to alter the mechanical properties of the brain. Therefore, measuring accurately the mechanical properties of brain tissue may help the diagnosis of these diseases and the monitoring of their development.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

My work involves not only physics and applied mathematics, but also medicine, engineering and computer science. Something I’ve had to accept is I can’t be an expert in everything!

To make progress, it’s important to work together with people from other disciplines. It’s a challenge because everybody has a different culture and speaks a different language, but it’s also exciting to be at the crossroad of so much expertise.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I’d say a major common misconception about research in physics and maths is that a researcher spends most of their day staring off into space coming up with ideas. (Now, sometimes that is a valid method too!) But a lot of my time is spent designing experiments and doing hands-on work in the lab, testing different materials. It’s vital to be able to validate theories by doing the practical experiments.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I’m fascinated by the area of gene therapy. Gene therapy involves altering the genes inside your body’s cells in an effort to treat or stop disease. In the future, genetic diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and diabetes could be treated by replacing the faulty genes. Researchers are still studying how and when to use gene therapy, and I am excited to see how this area progresses.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.