The winners of the 2015 Helen Carr Peake Research Prize are Mr. Ritchie Chen, a doctoral student in Materials Science and Engineering; Mr. Ariel Edward Hight, doctoral student in the Eaton Peabody Laboratory, Harvard Medical School; and Mr. Luke Shaheen, a doctoral student in Health Sciences & Technology. These awardees have won Peake recognition as a result of outstanding research projects in the area of bioengineering.

Mr. Ritchie Chen’s research is supervised by RLE PI Polina Anikeeva, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Mr. Chen is recognized this year for his significant discoveries in wireless magnetothermal neuromodulation.

In the emerging field of bioelectronics medicines, Mr. Chen has demonstrated that neurons in deep brain structures can be wirelessly stimulated by magnetic nanoparticles in the presence of an alternating magnetic field. This work was published as a report, ‘Wireless Magnetothermal Deep Brain Stimulation,’ in the March 2015 issue of Science. In this work, Mr. Chen optimized the hyperthermic performance of ferrofluids to enable rapid heat dissipation and to elicit low cytotoxicity in biological systems. When heat-sensitive ion channels on the membranes of neurons are exposed to heat generated by hysteretic power loss of magnetic nanoparticles exposed to alternating magnetic fields, the channels conduct calcium into the cells. When calcium enters the cell, action potentials occur. Mr. Chen has demonstrated this magnetothermal neuromodulation scheme in vitro and in vivo.

Mr. Ariel Edward (Ed) Hight, is a PhD student in the Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology (SHBT) program and is working on his thesis at Eaton-Peabody Laboratory supervised by Professor Christian Brown, Department of Otology and Laryngology, Harvard Medical School. Mr. Hight is recognized as a 2015 Helen Carr Peake Awardee for his significant accomplishments in advancing the field of auditory prosthetics.

Mr. Hight’s research is aimed at improving the auditory brainstem implant (ABI), a device that, like the cochlear implant, restores hearing to deaf individuals. New methods of neural activation are being explored that involve optogenetics, where neurons that are sensitized by the incorporation of light-sensitive proteins excite by stimulation with blue light. The eventual hope is that optical stimuli can be focused to a greater degree than the electric current used in the conventional ABI, thereby achieving more selective and natural stimulation of the auditory brainstem. In his research, Mr. Hight uses a new opsin, Chronos, to explore temporal synchrony of responses to light pulses, and shows that this opsin evokes higher neural synchrony than the standard, channelrhodopsin‑2. This result is paramount as these opsins have fairly slow kinetics and an auditory prosthesis requires fast signaling. This research is published in a special issue of Hearing Research that also commemorates the three Lasker Award recipients, Graeme Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair and Blake Wilson. for their work on the cochlear implant.

Mr. Luke Shaheen, a PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Health Science and Technology Program, supervised by EPL Director, Professor Charles Lieberman, Harvard Medical School, is recognized for his significant accomplishments in developing novel noninvasive diagnostics for subtle acoustic trauma. This work has the potential to revolutionize the way in which the etiology of hearing loss is parsed into its component parts.

Recent work in the Liberman lab has discovered a more subtle type of hearing loss, termed cochlear neuropathy or hidden hearing loss, where exposure to loud sounds causes damage to the neurons responsible for conveying information from the ear to the brain. Hidden hearing loss can occur despite normal thresholds hearing in quiet, and is likely responsible for difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments such as a crowded restaurant. Mr. Shaheen’s research focuses on using evoked auditory potentials, a type of EEG, to diagnose this loss, specifically comparing the utility of two different methods: the Auditory Brainstem Response (ABR) and the Envelope Following Response (EFR). Since hidden hearing loss specifically damages high-threshold cochlear neurons, he hypothesized that the EFR, which preferentially stimulates these neurons, may be a better diagnostic tool. By making these measurements in mice with a known sound exposure history, he has demonstrated that this theory is correct: hidden hearing loss in more clearly detectable by EFRs. The differences were maximized when sound stimulus parameters are set in a way that maximizes the evoked response from the cochlear nerve. By exploring what causes these parameters to be optimal, his work helps to define principles that can be used to design tests of hidden hearing loss in humans.

The Helen Carr Peake Fund was established to honor the late wife of Professor William T. Peake. This year’s recipients were selected by a committee consisting of Professor Dennis Freeman, Professor Jongyoon Han (Committee Chair), Dr. Heidi Nakajima (MEEI, EPL), Dr. Konstantina Stankovic (MEEI, EPL), Professor George Verghese and RLE Director Yoel Fink.