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Robert Rennaker Appointed Chief of Neuroengineering at Center for BrainHealth

A headshot of Robert L. Rennaker II, Ph.D. who is wearing a navy blue shirt and standing in a brightly lit room.

Center for BrainHealth

Center for BrainHealth announces the appointment of Robert L. Rennaker II, Ph.D., as Chief of Neuroengineering at the Center. The role will be in conjunction with his leadership of the UT Dallas Texas Biomedical Device Center where he has served as executive director since 2013. The interdisciplinary collaboration will explore pushing the boundaries of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout life. Initial work will investigate how to enhance human cognitive performance by combining the Center’s scientifically validated brain training with a wireless medical device that can interface with the body and brain. “Dr. Rennaker and his team are developing innovative technologies to advance brain repair that could only have been imagined five years ago. His results show tremendous promise in dramatically improving brain function in motor and sensory domains,” explained Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., Center for BrainHealth founder and chief director. “We have high expectations that Dr. Rennaker’s neurodevices will also have vast additive benefits to improving complex cognitive performance when used in conjunction with other treatments to enhance recovery and resilience.” Rennaker’s latest findings published recently in the journal Stroke, reveal that targeted plasticity significantly enhanced the benefits of rehabilitation compared to rehabilitation alone for stroke patients. According to Rennaker, targeted plasticity is analogous to “a key that unlocks the brain’s full potential to recover,” but if it is to reach those who need the technology, it must be affordable and minimally invasive. “The pill-sized device artificially activates the vagus nerve to release neurotransmitters involved in learning,” explained Rennaker. “Normally, the excitement of learning new tasks results in the release of adrenaline in the body which activates the vagus nerve. In the cases of stroke, where an individual must relearn tasks that used to be routine (such as picking up objects), the pill-sized device stimulates the vagus nerve to artificially provide the ‘excitement’ signal to enhance learning and memory. Activation of the vagus nerve releases neurotransmitters critical to learning and memory. We call this approach targeted plasticity because it enhances plasticity in specific pathways critical for recovery.” Rennaker illustrated an example, explaining that, following some brain injuries, the parts of the brain that previously controlled a limb are damaged. Physical therapy attempts to train uninjured areas of the brain to control movement of the affected limb. Targeted plasticity pairs the release of neurotransmitters with therapy to strengthen brain regions, which are learning to control these movements. In doing so, targeted plasticity enhances learning in these specific brain regions and restores function to a greater extent than therapy alone. Rennaker and his team are exploring the use of targeted plasticity for traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as enhancing normal memory and cognition. “The goal is to create a ubiquitous platform that will enhance the brain’s ability to learn and recover, also known as, brain plasticity,” said Rennaker. “By pairing vagus nerve stimulation with scientifically validated therapies and brain training, we hope to demonstrate that targeted plasticity radically enhances the benefits, creating the next revolution in brain health. Partnering with the Center for BrainHealth will expedite this exciting path forward.” Targeted plasticity is three to four years away from becoming publicly available but has already proven to be safe in three clinical trials. Rennaker posits that, with proper funding, the next version will be injectable and cost as little as $3,000 for the device, a price much less than the $25,000 price tag of currently available stimulators. Eric Bennett, Brain Performance Institute executive director, who has been working for months with Drs. Chapman and Rennaker to solidify the collaboration, foresees that the partnership will have implications for offerings at the Brain Performance Institute in the future. “This collaboration has the potential to create unprecedented applications that can help people regain control over their brains and their bodies,” explained Bennett. Dr. Rennaker is a former enlisted U.S. Marine who served five years on active duty. He served in Liberia, the 1st Gulf War, and Yugoslavia. After being honorably discharged in 1993, he earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Arizona State University and spent seven years as a professor at the University of Oklahoma in the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department. Now at UT Dallas, he is a full professor with appointments in Electrical Engineering and Neuroscience, holds the Texas Instruments Distinguished Chair in Bioengineering, and is head of the UT Dallas Department of Bioengineering. 

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