Q&A: Narayanan and Moriarty, FUTURE in Biomedicine collaborators

Date: Thursday, August 10, 2023

Now in its 15th year, the FUTURE in Biomedicine program fosters research and learning partnerships with professors from Iowa colleges that do not offer doctoral programs. By opening up University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine lab space, technology, and expertise each summer to research teams from other colleges, the program seeks to enhance cross-institutional collaboration and invite fresh ideas and perspectives. 

Two of this summer’s researchers—Nandakumar Narayanan, MD, PhD, from the University of Iowa, and Terence Moriarty, PhD, of the University of Northern Iowa—discuss their experience collaborating through the program. 

Dr. Terence Moriarty fits a research participant with the fNIRS device.
Functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, is a noninvasive imaging technology resembling a headband attached with Velcro around the head. It emits infrared radiation to measure changes in blood flow in the brain.

What do you see as the benefit of the FUTURE in Biomedicine program?


The University of Iowa is this major flagship, Big 10 university in the middle of a small state, and we punch way above our weight in the sense that we have unique programs. Most places in the country—in the world, really—you'd only find hospitals this size in the middle of a huge city. This is paired with an environment of all of these smaller colleges and educational environments all over the state. 

The FUTURE program is based on connecting the students and professors coming from these other environments to the cutting-edge biomedical research and training at the University of Iowa. I'm a specialist in Parkinson's disease, and I do research on humans and rodents. I provide clinical care and have federal grants that support research. Dr. Moriarty has exposure to a lot of students but doesn't have the breadth and the access to patients that we do and the equipment that we do—but he has ideas and expertise. Our goal is to establish a collaboration. 

What is your research project?


I see patients with Parkinson's disease across the state of Iowa, and these patients have various motor problems, and they also have cognitive problems. There's no test for the cognitive aspects of this disease.  

An electroencephalogram (EEG), which looks at brain activity, is very blurry in space, but it gives you good temporal resolution. You can see how fast things are moving, but you can't really see where they're coming from. Terence has this really interesting way to look deeper in the brain by looking at brain blood flow. The exciting thing is this is a very portable, inexpensive, widely applicable technology. But it's sort of new, so we're interested in determining the relationship between these two types of signals, EEG and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which is Terence’s area of expertise. 


I'm an exercise physiologist by trade, and it's only in the last five or six years, during my PhD, that I've started to get into the brain and begun working with this device. Kumar can measure the electrical activity that happens in the brain, but in addition to the electrical activity when somebody's thinking, there also comes an increase in blood flow and glucose. fNIRS has good spatial resolution that gives us good imaging in that regard, so we can kind of mesh the two together.  

Right now, we have seven healthy individuals in the lab who do a relatively simple cognitive task, and we look at both responses (EEG and fNIRS) to see what kind of a difference there is across both modalities.

What have you learned from the experience?


At UNI, it's difficult to access groups of clinical patients. That was one of the big advantages coming to Iowa City. Just being able to exchange ideas with Kumar around the lab ... This is different-level stuff. The experience is just awesome. Every day, we come in and meet people who are just intrigued by one neuron in the brain. It's amazing to see. 


Terence has a lot of technical abilities that our group did not have. The fNIRS technology is a method that I know nothing about. I don't know how to use it. I don't know the companies. I don't know how to analyze the data. So having Terence and his students be able to do that is really, really helpful. It’s a nice complimentary skill set. I always welcome learning new techniques, and I’ve been curious about fNIRS for a few years as I’ve been watching the data come out. It’s in an early-ish phase in its application in human research, so I’m very curious about it and what it can and can’t do. 

How has it been working with the undergraduate researchers?


Terence has brought two awesome students with him, exposing them to the biomedical research environment here at the University of Iowa. Our hope is that this collaboration will have many dividends other than just the unique interaction. Hopefully, Terence might have more students or a colleague who resonates with research we’re doing here at the University of Iowa, and we can make those connections. 

How do you imagine this research could be applied clinically someday?


We’ve learned a lot about how the human brain works over the last hundred years, but we haven’t been able to apply it in a way that’s meaningful. That’s the next step. If we had a technology that could tell us what brain structures are contributing to cognitive changes, it could provide data that is predictive for certain things about disease. 

With this, we can look at people as they are walking around or interacting. Those techniques don’t really exist in modern neuroscience, and the potential for them is huge. A lot of our drugs and interventions have side effects. Potentially, if we gave a drug and knew that if it changed the fNIRS signal in this way and the EEG in that way, the correlation could be an early warning sign for drug side effects or problems. 

If this is truly a marker for high-level cognitive processing, we could design therapies to maximize it. You could use this as a control signal. We’re going towards that closed-loop brain stimulation. 

What’s next for you?


Since we have been fortunate enough to gather preliminary fNIRS and EEG data on healthy individuals during the FUTURE program, we aim to apply for a Parkinson’s disease grant early in 2024.