University of Minnesota Researchers Awarded $6.6M to Develop New Device to Treat Mental Health Disorders

MINNEAPOLIS, MN- September 3, 2020 – Researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School have been awarded a $6.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to develop a new medical device that can treat mental health disorders in a way that has never been done before using brain rhythms.

Each sub-region of the brain has a rhythm causing the cells to switch on and off at a defined frequency. It has been shown that when brain waves across regions fall into synchrony, information flows better between them. Similarly, if regions are overconnected, one circuit could take over and disrupt the rest of the brain, which often happens in people with mental health disorders.

Principal investigator Alik Widge, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, has previously developed methods to bring two regions into synchrony when they’re not and force regions out of synchrony to break a connection that is too strong. With this grant, Widge and his team are using these methods of syncing and unsyncing brain waves to develop a novel, human-ready neuromodulation device for people with mental health disorders. His team includes Gregory Molnar, PhD, MSC, associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery and medical device development expert, and Mahsa Shoaran, PhD, of EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, in Switzerland and expert in signal processing circuits for brain implants.

Unlike deep brain stimulation, which stimulates 24/7, this device only stimulates at a few key moments every minute, just enough to bring brain rhythms back into synchrony. It delivers a thousand-fold less energy to the brain than existing treatments.

Widge compares this device to the conductor of an orchestra. “A conductor holds a baton, and as soon as he points, the violins come in at the exact right moment. If the conductor does it enough times, the violins learn on their own when to come in. This device works similarly,” Widge said.

The University of Minnesota’s focus on academic medicine helps Widge and his team to have an on-the-ground understanding of the clinical pain points associated with the existing implantable neuromodulation technologies. At the same time, the University’s biomedical engineering research infrastructure provides him with expert colleagues to actually create a new solution to address those needs. Widge was able to capitalize on the unique convergence of the University’s clinical strength in neuromodulation, previous advances in neurostimulation made through the Brain Conditions research area of Minnesota’s Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy (MnDRIVE), as well as collaborations with industry leaders and involvement in the broader Minnesota medical device economy.

The team could have a device that is ready for first-in-human use in as little as five to six years.

About the University of Minnesota Medical School
The University of Minnesota Medical School is at the forefront of learning and discovery, transforming medical care and educating the next generation of physicians. Our graduates and faculty produce high-impact biomedical research and advance the practice of medicine. Visit to learn how the University of Minnesota is innovating all aspects of medicine.

Contact: Kelly Glynn
Media Relations Coordinator, University of Minnesota Medical School