[Image above] Summer Scholar Alejandro Aponte works on a prototype for a pump that can deliver drugs to the brain. Aponte, a University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez mechanical engineering major, is working to make the pump small enough to be easily implantable. Credit: Denis Paiste; Materials Processing Center
Highly skilled and experienced scientists aren’t the only researchers who are working to advance society. Undergrads can also contribute by bringing unique skills to research projects through programs like NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates.
Alejandro Aponte, an undergrad at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, is participating in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Summer Scholars Program—an internship that brings undergrads from universities across the U.S. to participate in various research projects at the university.
Aponte is working in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering lab of Michael Cima, David H. Koch Professor of Engineering, under the direction of Ritu Raman, an MIT postdoc. Research in the lab is currently focused on neural implants “for diagnosing and treating neural disorders,” Raman explains in a video in an MIT news release. The scientists are working to create a small pump that can transport drugs to the brain to treat anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
The drugs would be infused through small probes inserted into specific neural circuits in the brain, says Raman. The goal is to make the pump small enough to be implanted in the brain.
Aponte was tasked with turning a prototype consisting of separate components (electrical and tubing docks) into one small integrated apparatus. The challenge is making the tiny implants immobile, so they don’t scar surrounding brain tissue once they’re implanted.
Aponte is a mechanical engineering major and has worked on other similar types of research. “I’ve worked with other research projects before, and most of them were in instrumentation development” he explains in the video. “This one is also instrumentation development…so I was able to see the overview of the project quick and be comfortable with it.”
Aponte says neural science has been a topic that he has been “really dying to learn about.”
Cima’s lab already has been working on tiny brain implants that could possibly deliver drugs or electrical stimulation to patients with Parkinson’s disease. The team published a paper in May describing soft hydrogel-coated implants they developed to prevent tissue scarring.
“It’s very exciting to know that my work might help others’ lifestyles be better in the future,” Aponte says.
Perhaps one day we will see Aponte’s work in medical facilities that specialize in treating brain disorders.