ASU engineer stimulates nerves and young minds

February 5, 2018

Along with using her engineering expertise to develop cutting-edge diagnostic tools for use in health care, Jennifer Blain Christen is also venturing into new forms of treatment. Moreover, the associate professor of electrical engineering is entering an entirely new field of medicine — electroceuticals.

“This emerging field aims to electrically stimulate the nervous system to eliminate or reduce the need for pharmaceuticals,” said Blain Christen, a faculty member in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. Jennifer Blain Christen in her lab. Photographer: Pete Zrioka/ASU Download Full Image

This approach treats diseases with the direct electrical stimulation of specific nerves, triggering self-treatment within the body, generally with the use of electrodes.

This method has drawbacks: it’s a broader form of treatment affecting more than just the targeted nerve, which presents unwanted side effects, noted Blain Christen. In addition, electrode stimulation is also invasive, cutting into the nerve to stimulate it.

To overcome this limitation, her project opts for a different method to stimulate nerves: light. Light can stimulate a nerve without cutting into and damaging it, and it is more accurate than other stimulation techniques.

“The reason this is exciting is because you can target specific nerves, opposed to an entire bundle,” Blain Christen said.

Blain Christen has discovered she can target specific nerves with the use of flexible display technology, commonly found in flat-panel televisions. By wrapping a miniature flexible display around a nerve, she can beam light from numerous pixels to intersect at one point, generating enough light to stimulate a response.

She’s currently experimenting with motor neurons, as those provide a direct, visible form of feedback in the form of movement, through a traditional, electrode-based approach.

“We’re looking for a downstream response from the motor neurons — basically, we’re looking to see that when we tell the nerves to turn on, they do just that,” Blain Christen said.

Our nerves’ jobs are to take a signal from the brain and activate a muscle, explains Blain Christen, so they’re gathering data using a more traditional approach — an implanted electrode — which they can then use to measure the amount of light to input for stimulus later down the line.

Her work is supported by a five-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award, which recognizes emerging education and research leaders in engineering and science. The funds also support Blain Christen’s development of a bioelectronics workshop aimed at introducing middle school students to the world of bioelectronics and how they are used in therapeutic and prosthetic technology.

So far, Blain Christen has visited about a half dozen middle schools, bringing fun activities to engage young minds in science. One activity involves running a song’s electrical current through a detached cockroach leg. The insects’ legs — which are naturally shed as a survival mechanism against predators and regenerated, much like a lizard’s tail — pulse in time with the music. The dancing motion, while a little gross, is an excellent illustration of bioelectrics and neural interfaces, Blain Christen said.

In addition to making bug legs dance, she utilizes electromyography, or EMG, to show students how electrical signals are important to your body and how they affect the different organs and systems within the body. The activity allows students to place EMG stickers on their arms to stimulate motor neurons or make an audio recording of the signal.

“I think it’s really important that we do this kind of stuff because kids need to like science, especially if they’re female, before they think that they can’t do it,” Blain Christen said.

Blain Christen’s drive to expose young minds to science early goes beyond simply receiving funding to do so. Growing up in a small town in Illinois, she says there were not many opportunities to become involved in scientific disciplines outside of agricultural science.

“There was an FFA — Future Farmers of America — and it was the club to be in,” she recalled.

That all changed when she decided to attend Illinois Math and Science Academy her sophomore year, which accelerated her education so much that she didn’t require any math credits to attain her engineering degree years later.

“There was no way I would have ended up at Johns Hopkins if I had stayed in the school I was in,” she said. “I think about what my life would have been like had I not had these opportunities, so I want to see that other people have similar ones. So as much as I can, I want to give back because I had a great opportunity like that.”

Pete Zrioka

Communications specialist, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development


Cronkite Innovation Day to feature drones, telepresence robots

The public expo at ASU will showcase cutting-edge technologies for journalists

February 5, 2018

Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is hosting a large-scale public expo featuring cutting-edge technologies for journalists.

Cronkite Innovation Day features backpack journalism kits, indoor drones, telepresence robots, virtual reality experiences and more. ASU students, faculty, staff and the public are invited to attend the event from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 7, at the Cronkite School on the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. Innovation Day The Cronkite School is hosting Innovation Day Feb. 7, a public expo featuring hands-on activities with cutting-edge technologies. Download Full Image

Cronkite Innovation Day was established in 2015 by the school’s innovation chief, Eric Newton, who champions cutting-edge ideas throughout the school and at Cronkite News, the school’s multiplatform daily news operation.

“Innovation Day is a fun way to get used to ever-changing technology,” Newton said. “Some of these tools and techniques are new, and some haven’t yet been used by journalists. Imagining how good journalism can be made with this technology is the first step toward adopting it.”

B&H Photo, Canon, Sennheiser and Sony are among the technology companies who will showcase products at the event. Faculty and staff also will demonstrate new tools that are — or could be — useful to journalists. They include:

• Drones Aloft: Learn how to fly a drone and see firsthand how drones can be used by journalists to cover the news.

• Backpack Journalism: Get acquainted with video equipment so compact it can fit neatly inside a backpack for journalists covering stories in the field.

• Virtual Reality Tours: Choose from more than 60,000 virtual adventures, from exploring the inner-workings of a human cell to touring the honeycombs in a beehive.

• The Zone — Transport Yourself: With an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and high-quality, noise-canceling headphones, attendees can transport themselves to a tranquil desert in this sensory-immersive experience.

• Download that App: Some of the most impactful tools for journalism are apps. Experiment with some of the latest phone apps that are reshaping how journalists research, report and share the news.

Innovation Day also will include a contest with prizes awarded to attendees who share great ideas for journalistic uses of technology. Contestants will post their ideas on social media during the evening with the hashtag #CronkiteInnovation to win prizes, which includes cameras and filmmaker gear. Students are encouraged to post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Innovation Day will be located in the Cronkite School’s First Amendment Forum at 555. N. Central Ave. in Phoenix. It is open to the public at no charge. 

Communications manager, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication