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Engineering a New Medicine

Written by CANDACE NELSON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RAYMOND THOMPSON Jr.

One small piece of technology could lead to advances in treating depression, helping stroke sufferers learn to walk again and even gaining a better understanding of opioid addiction. All you have to do is put on a helmet. 

West Virginia University researcher Julie Brefczynski-Lewis sees big potential for her PET helmet, which is currently in its concept imaging phase.
PET, which stands for Positron Emission Tomography, uses positively charged particles to detect how parts of the body are functioning via colored images. Those images display areas of increased metabolic activity — like the division of cancer cells — as bright spots. 

Julie Brefczynski-Lewis

Julie Brefczynski-Lewis wears a PET helmet.

“Traditionally, PET scanners require a person to lie very still in a large piece of equipment, but a helmet allows people to move around so they’re more comfortable, but also so that we get to measure the body while it’s in action,” Brefczynski-Lewis said. “So much of what characterizes human behavior involves movement — socially interacting, engaging with our world — and this new technology allows us to be able to measure the entire brain while moving.” 

A picture is worth 1,000 ideas 

"Brefczynski-Lewis, a neuroscientist, first became interested in this field of research after she saw a drawing in the office of colleague Stan Majewski (who is now at the University of Virginia) that showed a woman on a treadmill donning a contraption on her head.

“I asked ‘what is that?’” she said. 

It was a depiction of an imager of the human brain that was in the early stages of development. In 2011, Majewski received a patent for the human helmet. By then Majewski had moved to WVU from Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab), in Newport News, Va., where he and a colleague applied for the patent in 2008.

“I just thought, ‘Wow, this has amazing potential and so many applications for humans,’” Brefczynski-Lewis said. “I just felt instinctively that this could be big.”  

Brefczynski-Lewis joined the team and led the effort following Majewski's departure from WVU. In 2014, the project received a big boost from President Barack Obama's BRAIN Initiative, which aims to foster innovative technologies to help explain how the human brain functions. WVU — along with collaborators at the University of Washington, University of California, Davis, and General Electric — received a $1.5 million grant to turn the technology concept into something more: the current prototype called the ambulatory microdose positron emission tomography, or AMPET.  

“That really pushed the project forward, and it has since sort of dominated my life,” Brefczynski-Lewis added, laughing. “Our next step is to build the imager that covers the entire head and eventually send them to labs and get them in the hands of researchers to fit as many applications as possible.” 

A world of possibility


While the technology to map the brain was developed in a lab at WVU, it’s up to other researchers to apply that technology to various industries — which is where you see its potential. 

“Personally, I think it would be great to study disorders like depression and see what markers in the brain work best with which types of therapy,” she said. “It’s also often difficult to get someone with severe mental health disorders to come in for an appointment. This way, the helmet could go right to the patients. 

“So much of what characterizes human behavior involves movement — socially interacting, engaging with our world — and this new technology allows us to be able to measure the entire brain while moving.” 

Brefczynski-Lewis also finds value in seeing how the brain responds to people learning to walk again after having a stroke, so that the process may be facilitated. And, there’s even potential to help West Virginia's struggle with the opioid epidemic.  

“With a virtual reality function, you could put an addict in a world where they are exposed to drug cues and see how they approach those cues in a state of craving or when exercising willpower,” she said. “This could be really beneficial in helping someone battling addiction.” 

The technology still has a few hurdles to overcome. For one, the helmet is quite heavy, so the team is working to make walking with the helmet in a natural way more simple. Also, details on how it functions with a virtual reality situation or with social interaction will take more work.  

But that hasn’t stopped the excitement from building. Brefczynski-Lewis and her team have seen press coverage, interest from notable researchers and additional funding in just a few short years. 

“It’s amazing — this opportunity. It’s very exciting to see these big names in the field and know they’re interested in this research, and it’s contagious in a way,” Brefczynski-Lewis said. “That’s been an interesting thing to see — that it’s not just me that’s excited about this — others are really excited, too. And together I think we are really going to make something amazing.”  

For more information, visit pethelmet.org. 

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