WVU Boasts Its Scientific Research

Neurosciences And Forensics Highlighted

WHEELING — Our nervous system is very clever. Its pathways from the brain to the body, and back again regulate everything from the movement of bones and muscles, to the speed of our locomotion.

“The spinal cord is responsible for all of this. It is built into us,” said Sergiy Yakovenko, director of the West Virginia University Neural Engineering Lab.

But when a stroke, injury or disease such as Parkinson’s interrupts those pathways, “things start to go wrong,” he told a group of news media gathered last month for WVU Media Day at the WVU Erikson Alumni Center.

As a solution, Yakovenko and his team are creating new types of small electrodes that would be placed inside a person’s body to reconnect those pathways — the loop from brain to body — enabling them to use prosthetics, and “enhance their abilities,” he said.

Yakovenko said he knows it all sounds like science fiction, but the technology that unites humans and machines through those electrodes, including electronic rehabilitation games to teach a person to control them, could become reality within only a few years.

He was among the speakers who last month presented some of the university’s research projects to news media members from throughout the state.

Glen Jackson, who is the university’s Ming Hsieh distinguished professor of forensic and investigative science, described the elements that make WVU’s Forensic and Investigative Science program one of the top in the world, including its doctoral program, its crime scene complex, and its ‘elite class’ designation from the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. That puts them among the 23 top programs in the U.S. and Canada, Jackson said.

Back in the Neural Engineering Lab, they’re developing those electrodes that would stimulate the brain into putting information back into the sensory system. For example, they would enable a person to use paralyzed body parts again, Yakovenko said.

For example, a quadriplegic could learn to feed herself chocolate, he said.

But the challenge is to develop electrodes that can stay in the body “for a long period of time, yet not degrade the tissues,” he said. Of course, it would take some time to use those parts again, and it would require physical therapy to regain pathways to the brain.

To help, his lab is also creating brain games, he said.

“We want to create experiences more like a game: rehabilitation games, such as “Walk the Therapy Dog,” a video game. Each game could represent “an engaging environment programmed to your deficit,” he said. “These are the technologies we develop in our lab.”

The Study of Crime Scenes

The WVU Forensic Science and Investigative program, as it is known today, was begun in 2000 with earmark money from U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

The program works in close contact with the FBI and now has bachelor of science degree in forensic and investigative science students from six different countries and 32 states. And as a STEM degree — among the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — the program boasts that 75 percent of its students are female, an unusually high amount for a Stem program, Jackson said.

It offers three degree tracks: examiner, biology analysis, and chemistry; a doctorate degree in forensic science, and a graduate law degree in forensic justice that’s offered in partnership with the WVU College of Law.

All of its programs are supported by the university’s Crime Scene Complex, that includes a training garage and four houses where professors set up crime scene situations to investigate, Jackson said. Those scenes could include, for example, a buried body, blood splatter analysis, identifying bullet casings on floors, analyzing fingerprints on the car, and tire tread analysis.

The program also boasts several laboratories, including its Cogent Systems Laboratory for fingerprinting and ballistics analysis; its Forensic Chemistry Laboratory, where students learn to prepare and analyze samples from crime scenes, such as explosives, pharmaceuticals and toxic substances; and laboratories for analyzing documents, DNA, race evidence, and latent fingerprints.

The Students First Program helps retain students through advising; a living-learning community that includes a dormitory wing for forensic science students; and a first-year orientation course, Jackson explained.

For more information on the Neural Engineering Lab, visit Yakovenko’s biography at http://neuroscience.wvu.edu/people/faculty/yakovenko. And, for info on the Forensic and Investigative Science program, visit forensics.wvu.edu.