Using subtle electrical signals to spot and stop brain injury

Dr Hamid Abbasi, Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI), has received a Research Honours Aotearoa medal for developing a method for automatically identifying biomarkers of hypoxic-ischemic brain injuries that can occur during childbirth.

Dr Abbasi was recognised with a Cooper Award by the Royal Society Te Apārangi and the Health Research Council at a ceremony in Hamilton on 8 November, an early career research excellence award for technology, applied sciences, and engineering.

He was recognised for his development of a promising method for automatically identifying biological markers of hypoxic-ischemic (HI) brain injury. This can be consequent to a host of things going wrong in childbirth, which deprives the infant’s brain of oxygen and blood supply, and is challenging to diagnose partly due to a lack of robust biomarkers.

The injury can develop into different types of neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy and cognitive health problems throughout life.

Through his research, Dr Abbasi has identified promising biological signatures for diagnosis in the form of subtle electrical brain signals. These can be seen in the first 6 hours after injury, when it would be optimal to start treatment. His research involved the development of an advanced machine-learning framework that can robustly identify and quantify these subtle wave-form signatures in the electroencephalographic (EEG) electrical brain signals, in real-time, with accuracy of over 99%.

The sooner we are able to identify the beginning of the injury, the greater our chances of preventing further injury, and long-term consequences of that injury.

Dr Hamid Abbasi Auckland Bioengineering Institute

This awarded research done by Dr Abbasi is in collaboration and supervised by Professors Alistair Gunn and Laura Bennet in the Department of Physiology at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, where the team have found that even sooner would be better – that cooling the brain within the first two hours would considerably reduce the level of brain injury.

“The sooner we are able to identify the beginning of the injury, the greater our chances of preventing further injury, and long-term consequences of that injury,” he says.

The technology would give clinicians confidence in identifying a problem, and allow for quick, easy and early intervention, within what is a small window of opportunity, he says.

Currently, Hypothermia is the most successful treatment for the hypoxic-ischemic brain injury in term infants, where the brain is cooled by a few degrees, helping to significantly prevent the injury from spreading.

However, the success of the treatment depends on it being applied within the first six hours, and recommending the treatment currently depends upon the subjective assessment by a clinician of physical symptoms in the baby, as there currently aren’t any clear biomarkers to help clinicians know if and when HI has occurred.

The automatic algorithms developed by Dr Abbasi can accurately detect the team’s identified subtle EEG biological markers of HI brain injury within the first six hours of it occurring, which could be a game-changer for treating at-risk infants.

Dr Abbasi is a Research Fellow at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute and is also part of the Department of Physiology and the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland. He is a machine-learning expert with extensive experience in developing deep-learning algorithms for health-care applications, particularly in neuroscience and healthcare for the brain.

He also spearheaded the Neurofanos team, which took the spotlight as first place winners at the University’s 2022 Velocity $100k Challenge, for their work on revolutionary intraoperative neuronavigational technology which will help neurosurgeons see the structures deep in the brain more clearly than ever before.

He and his team are currently calling for PhD applicants to develop their research on developing the technology to identify exact timing of hypoxic-ischemic brain injury further hop. He hopes the research will lead to the development of a low-cost technology that can monitor babies’ neurological health, easily and in any hospital in the country.

At the awards ceremony in Hamilton, Dr Abbasi dedicated the award to his “motherland” Iran.

“I stand in solidarity with the brave Iranian women and men, who have been standing up against the absolute darkness over the past couple of months. Here, I would like to replicate their voice for women, life and freedom. I do believe that light will overcome the darkness.”

He also thanked Professors Gunn and Bennet, for their guidance, support and encouragement. “There are no words I could find to express my feelings, apart from saying a big thank you for the past decade of my life. I look forward to more ground-breaking discoveries with the team.”

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Margo White I Media adviser
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