National and local experts in biomedical engineering, neuroscience and rehabilitation will gather to examine the brain-machine interface as part of the UAB Bevill Neuroscience Symposium on Feb. 27.  

   brain machineAmong the sharpest of cutting edges in science is the interface between machines and the brain, especially in the field of overcoming loss of motor function due to injury or disease. Leading scientists and engineers from around the nation and from the University of Alabama at Birmingham will gather for a symposium on the brain-machine interface at the 2015 Bevill Neuroscience Symposium. Sponsored by the UAB Comprehensive Neuroscience Center, the symposium will highlight the collaboration between the fields of engineering and medicine.

The event is all day Friday, Feb. 27, in the UAB Alumni House, at the corner of 10th Avenue South and 13th Street. Opening remarks begin at 8:30 a.m.

“Some of the nation’s leading figures in biomedical engineering will be in attendance,” said Lori McMahon, Ph.D., director of the UAB Comprehensive Neuroscience Center. “UAB will be well represented by speakers in areas such as psychology, psychiatry, neurology, radiation neurobiology, engineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation.”

Featured speakers include:

  • Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., Duke University, who was the first to propose and demonstrate that animals and human subjects can use their electrical brain activity to directly control neuroprosthetic devices via brain-machine interfaces.
  • Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, has developed a paradigm to explore cortical signals generated during volitional arm movements. His team has developed an algorithm to capture arm-movement data and has shown that a paralyzed patient who cannot move any part of her body below her neck can move a high-performance modular prosthetic limb intuitively in coordinated, graceful movements closely resembling natural arm and hand movements.  
  • Leigh Hochberg, M.D., Ph.D., Brown University and Massachusetts General Hospital, whose research focuses on the development and testing of novel neurotechnologies to help people with paralysis and other neurologic disorders, and on understanding cortical neuronal ensemble activities in neurologic disease.  
  • P. Hunter Peckham, Ph.D., Case Western Reserve University, focuses on functional restoration of the paralyzed upper extremity in individuals with spinal cord injury. He and collaborators developed three generations of implantable neural prostheses which use electrical stimulation to control neuromuscular activation.   
“The brain-machine interface represents a frontier at the intersection of medicine, science and engineering,” said Iwan Alexander, Ph.D., dean of UAB’s School of Engineering. “We are beginning to understand how to capture fundamental processes in the brain to stimulate electrical and mechanical responses in devices and machines. These advances point to a future rich in discovery that will yield exciting applications ranging from physical rehabilitation to thought-activated mechanical and electrical devices.”

“Since Hans Berger’s discovery of the ability to detect electrical activity of the human brain, and the ability to monitor this activity by electroencephalography (EEG), scientists have pursued the extension of this insight to the area of neuroprosthetics.  Early outcomes of this research include cochlear implants and others,” said Robert E. Palazzo, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Recently, the extraordinary demonstration that implants in the brain’s motor cortex can transmit signals capable of directing the movement of robotic artificial limbs has ignited the promise of combining the science of the brain with the engineering of prosthetic devices. The promise for the development of integrated portable devices that overcome loss of hearing, loss of movement, and possibly even loss of sight is upon us.”

UAB speakers include Iwan Alexander, Ph.D., dean, School of Engineering; Robert Palazzo, Ph.D., dean, College of Arts and Sciences; Amie McLain, M.D., professor and chair, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; David Standaert, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Neurology; Lori McMahon, Ph.D., director, Comprehensive Neuroscience Center; Adrienne Lahti, M.D., professor, Department of Psychiatry; Harrison Walker, M.D., associate professor, Department of Neurology; Rajesh Kana, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Psychology; Mark Bolding, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Radiology; and Corey Shum, technical director, Enabling Technology Laboratory.

By: Bob Shephard - UAB Media

Dr. Guy Caldwell
Dr. Guy Caldwell

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. —  The University of Alabama’s Board of Trustees has named Dr. Guy Caldwell, UA professor of biological sciences, a University Distinguished Research Professor.

This title recognizes UA faculty who have achieved international accomplishments in their field and have been given extensive peer recognition for their scholarly contributions and noteworthy academic service.

Caldwell is internationally known for his research and expertise on malfunction in basic cellular mechanisms associated with diseases of the nervous system, particularly movement disorders like Parkinson’s and dystonia. He uses the microscopic nematode C. elegans as a model system for discovering gene function as well as therapeutic target development for these disorders.

Caldwell is one of only two UA faculty members to presently hold the University’s Distinguished Research Professor title.

“Professor Caldwell’s appointment as University Distinguished Research Professor follows important national recognitions for his innovations in both research and teaching,” said Dr. Robert Olin, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “These include a prestigious NSF CAREER Award and appointment as CASE Professor of the Year for the state of Alabama. We congratulate Professor Caldwell on this further recognition of his work and continue to look forward to great things from the Caldwell lab at UA.”

“Considering the caliber of the many outstanding faculty at UA, I feel deeply honored for this recognition,” said Caldwell. “It is purely an outcome of the efforts of the past and present people in my research lab; notably my research partner and wife, Professor of Biological Sciences Kim Caldwell. I am grateful to my colleagues and the administration for the opportunities I have had to establish and advance my entire professorial career at this wonderful institution.”

Joining UA’s department of biological sciences in 1999, Caldwell has received contracts and grants worth more than $5.6 million to support his research and that of his students. He has authored or co-authored three books, 11 book chapters, and more than 70 refereed publications in scientific journals and given more than 200 invited lectures and presentations at national and international conferences.

His research has been published in some of the most prestigious scientific journals, including Science, Cell, Cell Metabolism, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and various Nature journals.

Graduating from Washington and Lee University with a Bachelor of Science in Biology in 1986, Caldwell earned his doctorate in cell and molecular biology at the University of Tennessee and was a post-doctoral Fellow in neurogenetics at Columbia University, where he trained under a 2008 Nobel Laureate, Dr. Martin Chalfie, just prior to being appointed as an assistant professor at UA in 1999.

In 2003, The National Science Foundation selected Caldwell as a CAREER Award recipient, the most prestigious award the NSF bestows on faculty early in their careers.

For his teaching and mentoring efforts at UA, Caldwell was selected in 2005 as a U.S. Professor of the Year for the state of Alabama by the Carnegie Foundation and Council for Advancement and Support of Education U.S. Professor of the Year Competition.

Named a Basil O’Connor Scholar by the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation, Caldwell was also twice named recipient of National Research Service Awards. Together with Kim Caldwell, he was the inaugural recipient of the HudsonAlpha Prize for Outstanding Innovation in the Life Sciences, as well as the 2008 Blackmon-Moody Outstanding Faculty Award at UA.

Caldwell has been a recipient of research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, the March of Dimes, Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, American Parkinson Disease Association, National Parkinson Foundation, The Parkinson’s Institute and the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia & Parkinson Foundation.

Caldwell holds adjunct appointments in the departments of neurology and neurobiology at The University of Alabama School of Medicine in Birmingham, where he also serves as a scientist in the Center for Neurodegeneration and Experimental Therapeutics and the Gregory Fleming James Center for Cystic Fibrosis Research.

UA’s department of biological sciences is part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards, including Rhodes and Goldwater scholarships.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.


The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) and Cure Dystonia Now (CDN) are collaborating to co-support a research investigation that may lead to a new drug for dystonia, the third most common movement disorder following essential tremor and Parkinson’s disease. The medications most frequently prescribed to treat this debilitating disease are ironically those with some of the highest incidence of intolerable side effects, which limit their use. A team of American and European investigators is exploring whether a drug called AZD1446 could potentially provide relief for dystonia patients without the unintended effects frequently caused by existing pharmacological therapies.

The investigation is led by David Standaert, MD, PhD, Professor and Neurology Chair at University of Alabama and includes Antonio Pisani, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurology at University of Rome Tor Vergata.

Art Kessler, President of the DMRF, explains: “This project addresses two important issues for the dystonia community: We need additional treatment options and we need to find new ways to offer treatment with minimal side effects. This project provides an important opportunity to investigate a possible new medication for dystonia while pursuing a better quality of life for patients.” Kessler developed an especially debilitating childhood onset form of dystonia at age eight and knows firsthand the challenges inherent in treating the disease.

Marc Miller, Director and Co-President of CDN states, “Our priority is to work with the brightest and most motivated doctors and scientists, and our goal is to discover new treatments. This project is an exciting opportunity to do both.” Two generations of the Miller family are affected by dystonia.

Dystonia is a neurological disorder that causes skeletal muscles to contract or spasm involuntarily, resulting in twisting, repetitive movements and/or sustained, abnormal postures. A person who is affected by dystonia struggles against the movements of his/her own body to walk, sit or rest comfortably, eat, write, and/or speak. It may be impossible to sit still. Treatment typically requires a combination of approaches including oral medications, botulinum neurotoxin injections, surgical interventions, and supportive therapies such as physical therapy. In some people, a class of drugs called anticholinergics may replace or compound the physical symptoms with equally disabling cognitive effects such as drowsiness, hallucinations, and memory difficulties. Striking a balance between controlling the dystonia and preserving the ability to function in daily life is a challenge for physicians and patients alike.

Dystonia results from improper signals in the nervous system that instruct muscles to contract excessively. Experts do not yet fully understand the neurological mechanism that causes the abnormal muscle contractions, but the origins appear to stem from an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain and changes in brain cell synapses. Standaert and team are using a genetically engineered mouse with abnormal neuronal signaling to examine whether AZD1446 can correct the abnormal signaling and restore the balance of neurotransmitters. In separate studies, the drug has been examined for use in treating attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cure Dystonia Now is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization working with researchers on cutting edge treatments and ultimately a cure for dystonia. Learn more about Cure Dystonia Now at

The Dystonia Medical Research Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to advancing research for improved dystonia treatments and ultimately a cure, promoting awareness, and supporting the well-being of affected individuals and families. The DMRF can be reached at 800-377-3978 or

 A new study says that the cost of a medication may play a very important role in a patient’s perception of whether it works.  

   prescriptionsPeople’s perceptions of the cost of a drug may affect how much they benefit from the drug — even when they are receiving only a placebo. The finding, from a new study of people with Parkinson’s disease led by Alberto J. Espay, M.D., of the University of Cincinnati, and Jerzy P. Szaflarski, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is published in the Jan. 28, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“Patients’ expectations play an important role in the effectiveness of their treatments, and the placebo effect has been well-documented, especially in people with Parkinson’s disease,” said Espay, study author. “We wanted to see if the people’s perceptions of the cost of the drug they received would affect the placebo response.”

For the study, 12 people with Parkinson’s disease were told that they would receive shots of two formulations of the same drug, with the second shot given after the benefits of the first shot had subsided. They were told that the formulations were believed to be of similar effectiveness, but that they differed in manufacturing cost — $100 per dose versus $1,500 per dose. Participants were told that the study was intended to prove that the drugs, while priced differently, were equally effective.

In reality, the participants received only a saline solution (placebo) for both injections, but were told they were receiving either the “cheap” or “expensive” drug first. Before and after each shot, participants took several tests to measure their motor skills and also had brain scans to measure brain activity.

“When patients received the ‘expensive’ drug first, their motor skills improved by 28 percent compared to when they received the ‘cheap’ drug, which was twice as much,” said Szaflarski, senior author of the study while on the faculty at the University of Cincinnati. He now is director of the Division of Epilepsy in the Department of Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “On one test of motor skills, people’s scores improved from 29 to 22 points when taking the ‘expensive’ drug first, but improved by only 3 points when taking the ‘cheap’ drug. In addition, the ‘expensive’ drug decreased activation in the brain similar to that of the Parkinson’s drug levodopa, while the ‘cheap’ drug increased activation in the brain,” indicating differential responses to the medication cost.

“If we can find strategies to harness the placebo response to enhance the benefits of treatments, we could potentially maximize the benefit of treatment while reducing the dosage of drugs needed and possibly reducing side-effects,” Espay said.

Espay says that the placebo response may be stronger in people with Parkinson’s because the disease decreases the amount of dopamine in the brain and the placebo effect is known to increase the release of brain dopamine. Dopamine affects movement; but it also affects anticipation, motivation and response to new things. “People who receive the shots thinking they received a drug may have an ‘expectation of reward’ response, which is associated with the release of dopamine similar to the response to the reward itself,” he said.

The study received extra scrutiny from the university’s review board before it began, since it involved intentional deception of the participants. The review board found that the study complied with federal research regulations that allow waiver of the informed consent requirement, and that the deception would have no adverse effects on the rights or welfare of the participants.

After the study, the participants were told about the true nature of the study. “Eight of the participants said they did have greater expectations of the ‘expensive’ drug and were amazed at the extent of the difference brought about by their expectations,” Espay said. “Interestingly, the other four participants said they had no expectation of greater benefits of the more expensive drug, and they also showed little overall changes.”

The study was supported by the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s. To learn more about Parkinson’s disease, please visit

By Bob Shephard