With all due respect to Captain James Kirk from the famed Star Trek series, Dr. Sridhar Sunderam disagrees that space is the “final frontier.” Rather, the greatest territory for discovery lies closer to humankind than the universe’s undetected outposts. In fact, it’s closer than our atmosphere, environment and even our own skin. What could that be?
“The most fascinating thing about the brain is that we have it right here,” Dr. Sunderam says, pointing to his head, “and yet we know very little about it. When it comes to understanding the way we live—and how we are going to live in the future—we need to think about intracranial intelligence at least as much as we think about extraterrestrial intelligence.”
Dr. Sunderam, a professor in the Center for Biomedical Engineering, leads the Neural Systems Laboratory, which focuses on the modeling and diagnosis of brain state for applications in epilepsy therapy, sleep monitoring and neural interfaces. Diagnosing brain state, he says, takes advantage of the way human beings “digitize” the world. “When we communicate, we say, ‘It is sunny,’ or, ‘It is night.’ We don’t say, ‘It is less night.’ We discretize the state also because that is how our brains work. The brain tends toward one of several distinctive states at any given time. Once we are able to diagnose the brain’s state, we can do useful things such as identify the start of an epileptic seizure—when the brain goes from a non-seizure state to a seizure state—or characterize abnormal sleep patterns. To detect brain state, we analyze an electroencephalogram (EEG) or other kinds of imaging to track the brain’s activity.”
One of the main problems Dr. Sunderam is studying is the role of sleep-wake dynamics in epilepsy and its potential role in therapy. “It took me several years to realize that sleep was an important determinant in seizure generation,” he explains. “In epilepsy therapy, seizure control is viewed as the holy grail. But the truth is that seizures affect sleep, behavior and cognition and poor sleep can beget seizures. I am trying to propose a comprehensive therapy that begins with developing a model based on normal sleep patterns and their interactions with seizures. When we understand how an individual’s sleep pattern correlates to seizure activity, we can create a dynamic programming strategy that simultaneously fosters normal sleep and fewer seizures.”
The son of a sailor, Dr. Sunderam completed his undergraduate education in his native India and subsequently applied to graduate programs in the United States and Europe. “I wanted to travel,” he says, smiling, “but I couldn’t be a sailor like my dad. I had to travel my way.”
While working on his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Kansas University, Dr. Sunderam came across a flyer for a company called Flint Hills Scientific, who was advertising intern positions for projects pertaining to brain signal analysis. “At that time, my Ph.D. work centered on how bones heal from surgical procedures,” he recalls. “Bones take a long time to heal. I would take an image and have to wait at least another week or more until I took another. Working on the brain was a completely different dynamic. The brain can change state at the snap of your fingers. We were working on algorithms that could detect seizures from the EEG and apply electrical stimulation to stop them. I was fascinated.”
Dr. Sunderam never returned to bone research; instead, he stayed at Flint Hills Scientific for six years before taking on research faculty positions in neural engineering at George Mason University and Penn State University. In 2009, eager to begin his own lab and continue his research on brain state diagnosis and its applications, Dr. Sunderam was hired to join the faculty of the Center for Biomedical Engineering. “What I liked about UK is that there seemed to be a lot of interest in collaboration, which is genuinely possible because the hospital is right here. Testing our ideas clinically is a lot easier because of the proximity,” he shares.
Dr. Sunderam also confides that he appreciates UK’s basketball tradition and enjoys being on a campus where basketball interest is high. In fact, he considers himself something of a good luck charm: three of the four schools he has attended or worked at have made the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four while he was present (Kansas, George Mason and Kentucky). However, he is 0-3 in national championships.
“Perhaps this will be the year,” he laughs.