The National Institutes of Health awarded its Director's Awards, which include a combined $8 million in research grants to two professors at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Brian Litt, a professor of neurology, neurosurgery, and bioengineering, and Gregory Corder, an assistant professor of neuroscience and psychiatry, are two of this year's 85 recipients, Penn Medicine News reported.
The awards are part of the NIH Common Fund's "High-Risk, High Reward Research Program," which aims to "fuel research endeavors that are more open-ended and could have a broader effect on scientific understanding than traditional research." Corder was awarded the New Innovator Award, receiving $2.4 million to investigate the mechanisms of chronic pain, and Litt was awarded the Pioneer Award for $5.6 million which will support his novel neurodevice research.
Litt is working to develop autonomous neurodevices, or "implanted machines that can question, record, and combine learning algorithms based on neurological signals and feedback to act and alter human behavior on the fly," Penn Medicine News reported.
For patients with epilepsy, the devices would predict and prevent seizures. In Parkinson's patients, implants would communicate with patients to improve mobility, reduce tremors, and enhance responsiveness.
Corder plans to use the grant to "identify which parts of the brain are important for pain perception and which circuits impact pain relief from opioids," Penn Medicine News reported.
In the wake of widespread opioid addiction that has increased over the past decade, this research can pave the way for effective pain-relief treatment without the addictive properties of opioids.
“We currently have a limited understanding of the neural pathways in the brain that contribute to pain, which has been a significant barrier for treating pain efficiently, without negative side effects," Corder told Penn Medicine News. "But, if we can identify and understand these circuits, we can then try to rewrite the neural code of pain.”