Jinglei Ping – an assistant professor in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department with an adjunct role in the Biomedical Engineering Department and affiliation with the Institute for Applied Life Sciences – has received two significant grants from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Air Force Office of Scientific Research. These grants, amounting to $675,274, will bolster the research in his Nano/Bio Interfaces & Applications Lab. The funded research holds immense promise in fields such as neural engineering, brain-machine interface, and brain-regenerative medicine.

One DoD grant, $449,999 in value, supports Ping as the sole principal investigator (PI) of a project delving into the control of neurons and astrocytes.

Cells in the human central nervous system include glial cells and neurons. Astrocytes – the “glue” of the nervous system – are glial cells located within both the central and peripheral nervous systems and provide physical and chemical support to neurons, maintaining their environment. 

The behavior and function of these cells depend on the pH – an indicator of acidity – in their microenvironments. However, effectively controlling these cells via microenvironmental pH modulation is a challenge, as known pH modulation methods are slow and unspecific. 

“Hence,” says Ping, “there is a critical need to precisely control neural cells through real-time pH modulation.” 

Ping explains that “We have developed an approach that can modulate the microenvironmental pH of a cluster of cells. The overall goal of the [DoD] project is to regulate astrocytic/neuronal behavior and function by using this approach.”

As Ping continues, “In this project, we will fabricate a microelectrode of atomically engineered graphene to create a real-time, controllable, localized pH microenvironment in an astrocyte/neuron cluster cultured on the microelectrode and elucidate the spatiotemporal, microenvironmental-pH factors in controlling the cells.” 

If successful, says Ping, “This project’s outcomes point towards advancements in bioelectronic controlling of astrocytes and neurons.”

Ping is also the sole PI on a second DoD grant of $255,275 that supports his lab’s research on an atomic-scale, two-dimensional, material-processing system. This system is integral for creating superior microelectrode materials essential for the aforementioned astrocytic/neuronal control project. 

“This technology enables the preparation of two-dimensional materials functionalized with engineered defects, making them apt for multiscale biosystem interfacing,” says Ping. 

Ping further underscores its expansive utility in nanomaterials, biomaterials, and nano/micro-fabrication research, predicting considerable benefits for other projects at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (December 2023)

Article posted in Research