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Driving Ingenuity at the Interactive Commons

Cameron McIntyre studies neural anatomy in mixed reality using Microsoft HoloLens.

The intricacies of the brain remain one of the last great mysteries of the human body, comprising an exquisite network of interconnected neurons. Cameron McIntyre, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, is using cutting-edge technologies at the university’s Interactive Commons (IC) to help better understand the circuitry of the brain and ultimately benefit patients with neurologic disorders ranging from Parkinson’s disease to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Basic science has been working for a long time to create the human connectome — basically a circuitry map of the human brain,” says McIntyre, whose lab focuses on deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat neurologic disorders. “If we know what the maps are and we know what circuits in a given disorder are dysfunctional, then we can use that to tell us where we should implant electrodes to best treat that particular disease.”

Launched in 2013, the IC fosters teamwork among disparate disciplines — from engineering to drama — to drive ingenuity in research and education. “Big advancements are going to happen at the intersections of our current disciplines,” says Mark Griswold, IC Faculty Director and a professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Radiology. To facilitate collaboration, the IC offers several resources, such as a 24 x 8-foot “visualization wall” where users can display images from multiple computing devices simultaneously and Microsoft HoloLens, which utilizes holograms to enable people to interact naturally with digital content.

Ideally, these resources will encourage innovation through enhanced communication. “One of the biggest gaps in the multidisciplinary approach is that people get together, but can’t communicate,” says Griswold. “One of the backbones of the Interactive Commons is to give people the ability to communicate through pictures and holograms — to look at their information and data in different ways.”

The Interactive Commons has a physical location – 4,500 square feet in the Thwing Building on Case Western Reserve’s campus. But the boundary-breaking work done there isn’t constrained by walls. Among the ongoing projects at the IC is a collaboration with faculty in the university’s Department of Dance to help create educational tools for the College of Arts and Sciences in undergraduate physics. 

McIntyre is just one of several faculty members in the biomedical engineering department who are taking advantage of the IC for work on digital imaging, neuromimetic interfaces and more. McIntyre’s team, which recently applied for an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, is building the infrastructure for a visualization environment specifically for deep brain stimulation. He partners with Griswold, other engineers and medical clinicians on the project.

“The HoloLens provides a different way to think about connections in the brain,” says McIntyre. “You can see more of a volume-based visualization as opposed to a 2-D computer screen. And you can see how things wrap around each other in ways that are hard to do on computer screens.”

McIntyre hopes the tools his team creates can be used by neurosurgeons specializing in DBS to train fellows and residents in a holographic environment rather than in the operating room as they currently do. Neurologists could also use the technology to help program implanted devices to achieve certain therapeutic effects. “I can see how the IC, and the HoloLens in particular, will offer a completely different way of interfacing with data and a much better way to do a lot of things we currently do with less interactive computers,” says McIntyre.

As the IC builds momentum and users, Griswold says the possibilities are endless. “The Interactive Commons provides a place to understand how people work together and to take the collaborative atmosphere we have here at Case Western Reserve and expand it to partners beyond our campus,” he says. “We have an opportunity as a university to change the way we teach and research for the better.” 

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