The University of Pittsburgh has a long history of research accomplishments and excellence in neuroscience. Pitt’s “open academic architecture,” which promotes an institutional spirit of cooperation and collaboration, enables research interactions to span departments, schools, and centers, and even extend into neighboring universities. Here are just three examples of major advances that have come from brain research at Pitt:
- Salk vaccine against polio. Pitt virologist Jonas Salk and his skilled research team developed the first vaccine against polio using inactivated virus. Introduced in 1955, the Salk vaccine was hailed as a miracle in preventing polio, which attacks the brain and spinal cord and can cause disabling paralysis, and even death. Known during the 1940s and ‘50s as the “summer scourge,” polio terrified American families as annual epidemics grew increasingly widespread and deadly. To test the vaccine, Salk led an elaborate field trial that required 20,000 doctors and public health officers and 250,000 volunteers. The vaccine, administered to millions of children over the following decades, contributed to the near eradication of polio in the western hemisphere by 1991.
- Pittsburgh Compound B for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists at Pitt developed a radioactive compound in 2008 that enables early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Pittsburgh Compound B (or PiB) was invented and developed by a team of researchers led by Chester Mathis, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Radiology and Pharmaceutical Sciences, and William Klunk, MD, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology. In addition to making possible the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, PiB should help clinicians monitor the disease’s progression. PiB works by binding to telltale beta-amyloid plaque deposits found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. These plaques are thought to kill brain cells, and their presence differentiates Alzheimer’s disease from other dementias. PiB can be injected into the bloodstream of patients, and specialists can then use imaging with positron emission tomography (PET) to locate the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. Before Pittsburgh Compound B, it was only possible to confirm Alzheimer’s disease after a patient’s death at autopsy. PiB has been licensed to GE Healthcare, which recently received approval to market a PiB analog in the United States. Approval for its use in Europe and Asia is under regulatory review.
- Thought-controlled robotic arm for the paralyzed. Jan Scheuermann’s ability to move below the neck was stolen by a neurodegenerative condition. In 2012, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at Pitt enabled Jan to feed herself a chocolate bar (her goal!), using a robotic arm that was controlled by signals from her brain. This breakthrough, as well as Jan's ability to perform many other tasks of daily living, was based on years of basic science research in the laboratory of Andrew Schwartz, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology and Endowed Chair in Systems Neuroscience. The team that translated this basic science into a reality included Michael Boninger, MD, Chair of the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery, and Jennifer Collinger, PhD, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, as well as a host of bioengineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, neurologists, neurophysiologists, neurosurgeons, rehabilitation specialists, roboticists, and statisticians at the University of Pittsburgh, along with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University. The brain-computer interface used signals that were recorded from two microelectrode arrays—two tiny grids, each with 96 micro-contacts, that were implanted into the surface of Jan’s cerebral cortex. These signals were electronically processed to generate movements of the robotic arm. In this way, Jan’s thoughts were translated into actions. She could move the prosthetic arm just two days after the arrays were implanted.