New WVU Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute director brings plans for new research, clinical trials

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — WVU’s newest director of the Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute is bringing with him new tools and clinical trials to target the state’s opioid epidemic.

Dr. Ali Rezai outlined the newest advances in fighting neurological diseases, including opioid addiction, in a presentation during WVU’s third annual Academic Media Day on Nov. 13 — only 10 days after taking his position.

“There’s been tremendous advances in brain imaging and how we can visualize brain disorders,” Rezai said. “We’re able to understand the science of addiction even better than before.”

Prior to coming to WVU, Rezai served as director of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center’s Neurological Institute, where he was involved in pioneering the use of brain pacemakers for treating Parkinson’s disease, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Now at WVU’s Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, he hopes to continue that research to use the technology to treat addiction. Some of the developments could be rolling out as early as next year, unlike anything West Virginians have had access to before.

“There have been brain implants for alcohol in Europe, but we’re going to be starting a new study looking at brain implants for addiction,” Rezai said. “There’s a lot of work being done with external modulation with magnets and external electrical stimulations for addictions.”

Rezai said the goal would be to use ultrasound-based neuromodulation for addictions and develop a protocol for brain implant for severe addictions.

“Implants aren’t for the initial phase of addiction,” he said. “These are for patients who have had all the therapies done and have failed and are very disabled.”

In order to meet these goals, WVU will be partnering with many other institutions and companies to explore other technology, such as virtual reality technology, micropellet technology, magnetic stimulation and electrical stimulation technology.

“So we’ll become a rapid research and development kind of effort, so we can help patients very quickly,” Rezai said. “That’s our goal — having a very quick way of helping those afflicted with neurological conditions from chronic pain, to addictions, to Alzheimer’s, to autism, to stroke and many others.”

Micropellets, which are non-steroid, non-opioid medications, would be inserted into the body post-surgery as a pain relief to block addiction at the root before it even begins.

“First dose (of an opioid) you take, your brain changes, the chemistry of your brain changes, so this can lead to addictive behavior over time. Not everybody becomes addicted, but a certain example of the population can get addicted,” Rezai said. “So the goal is to not give the Oxycodone and narcotics or these addictive medications and instead give them local treatment, such as this micropellett that delivers the medication locally without the need to take a pill that gets systemically, that gets absorbed and goes to your brain and can make you more addicted.”

For addictions milder than those needing implants, research is also looking at external, wearable technology to track the sensors in the brain that cause addiction.

“When you’re craving or you’re seeking medications or drugs, the body’s physiology is off and is making you seek the drugs,” Rezai said. “The part of the brain that controls addictions, sends signals to the rest of the body in terms of anxiety, in terms of changes in blood vessels, in terms of changes of your heart rate varibility. There’s a number of elements or signals that go from the brain to the rest of the body.”

The goal, Rezai said, would be to detect those signals before a patient even takes the drug occurs and correlate those signals to the behavior.

“The more we can do the correlation of the signals to behavior, the more our predictive machine learning will allow us to predict the signal that will result in that behavior,” he said. “This way we are detecting it before the behavior occurs.”

While more research on that is needed, Rezai believes it’s a very important area of treating addictive behavior.

“It’s simple sensors that you wear, so they’re not obstructive with your daily life, and they’re passively monitoring your body’s physiology,” he said. “Wearable sensor technology can be used to quantify and measure the physiology of the body linked to addiction.”

Patients for these studies at WVU’s Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute will largely be West Virginians afflicted and impacted by addiction conditions.

“We’ve got to help the population of West Virginia, but also Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky and across the country. It’s a major effort, but our primary goal is to help the patients and the population of West Virginia with this new effort,” Rezai said. “Our goal is regional, not just local but regional and national as well because a lot of the technology that we’re going to develop here will have impacts on patients across the country, so it’s more of a global vision for the Neuroscience Institute here.”