The Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging Awards BME Student Vibha Balaji a Prestigious Grant
Ph.D. student Vibha Balaji of the Biomedical Engineering (BME) Department has received a prized $5,000 Medical and Science Student Research Grant from the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging. Balaji, who does research in the lab of her mentor, BME Associate Professor Joyita Dutta, will use her grant to do pioneering work on Alzheimer's disease.
The purpose of the Medical and Science Student Research Grant is to enable medical, science, or engineering students the opportunity to gain research experience in nuclear medicine, molecular imaging, and targeted radionuclide therapy before they select a residency program or during their first two years of graduate school.
Balaji – who earned her M.S. from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani in Goa, India – will use her Medical and Science Student Research Grant to complete work that is particularly vital for Alzheimer's disease diagnosis, in which computational models are crucial for uncovering the propagation pattern of so-called “tau tangles,” a pathological hallmark of the disease.
According to Medical News Today, tau is a protein, contained within the nerve cells, which helps form microtubules – essential structures that transport nutrients within nerve cells. In a healthy brain, the tau proteins help these microtubules remain straight and strong.
“But in Alzheimer’s,” says Medical News Today, “tau collapses into aggregates called tangles. When this happens, the microtubules can no longer sustain the transport of nutrients and other essential substances in the nerve cells, which eventually leads to cell death.”
As Balaji explains about the work that her grant will support, “The proposed project aims to develop a graph-based ‘explainability’ model…that predicts the longitudinal aggregation of tau protein in the human connectome [or map of neural connections in the brain] from tau Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and amyloid PET data.”
Balaji concludes that the project seeks to improve the “explainability” of artificial intelligence (AI) predictions. “This will have important implications for the use of AI in clinical settings, where the black-box nature of AI predictions can be a concern,” says Balaji, referring to the inexplicable or hidden character of such predictions.
Professor Dutta’s lab develops signal processing and deep learning techniques for biomedical applications, including Alzheimer’s neuroimaging and personal health monitoring. Dutta is also an adjunct faculty member in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
As Dutta says about her lab’s research and what Balaji studies, “Several of our ongoing research projects are focused on the development of AI-based approaches to aid the diagnosis and prognosis of Alzheimer's disease. Our broad research goal is to develop signal processing and AI-based solutions to a range of inverse problems, including biomedical image processing and reconstruction, brain network analysis, and electrophysiological signal processing for healthcare applications. (May 2023)