From a very young age, Gideon Idumah was so fascinated with mathematics that books without mathematical equations bored him. This, along with encouragement from high school and college instructors, played a major role in his decision to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
As a doctoral student in applied mathematics at Case Western Reserve University, Idumah spent 10 weeks collaborating with an interdisciplinary team with the goal to develop computational techniques for neuron models in the spinal cord. The multi-institutional project is aimed toward helping spinal cord injury patients to increase their mobility in the future. The internship program is part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Mathematical Sciences Graduate Internship (MSGI) Program, which is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).
“As a $2 billion annual industry, electrical stimulation of the spinal cord has become an accepted therapeutic tool. Its most successful approach is in pain management, where 30,000 patients per year have electrodes implanted epidurally,” said Idumah. “However, for spinal cord injuries the approach has been much less successful and has remained at a research state mostly due to a lack of a detailed computational model.”
The computational models considered are complex systems requiring computers for their simulation, such as neurons of the spinal cord responsible for the motor control. The Heckman Laboratory at Northwestern University has designed a first iteration of such a model and Idumah’s research was to help further develop it. Along with his MSGI mentor Johann Rudi, Ph.D., at Argonne National Laboratory, they partnered with teams of neuroscientists from both Northwestern University and California State University.
The spinal cord contains a segmented structure, with neurons in each segment providing sensory and motor stimulation to the different parts of the body. The building block of all the circuitry inside the spinal cord is a group of neurons that are connected by synaptic connections of different weights. “These weights are currently unknowns and are what we tried to determine,” said Idumah.
“We approached our research by formulating a so-called inverse problem, which starts with usually limited observational data, and then we want to find the causal factors in models that produced the result,” he said. “We applied this method to spiking neurons in the spinal cord to understand how spikes, or electrical voltages, are generated in a neuron cell for a given current or sensor stimuli. This often takes the form of a spiking voltage time-series, similar to an electrocardiogram.”
This information allowed Idumah and his team to further constrain uncertain parameters in the computational models for spinal cord electrical stimulation. Successful numerical results for realistic models would represent a significant step toward the development of devices that can provide increased mobility for patients with spinal cord injuries.
“During this internship, I gained more programming experience, both in learning new programming languages and deepening my existing programming skills,” Idumah said. “This internship exposed me to the field of neuroscience which has stimulated a desire for me to do my Ph.D. thesis in that field.”
Looking forward, Idumah wants to focus on building mathematical models that can help to better understand the mechanisms of spreading depression in the brain. “This would be useful in understanding/treating migraine, concussion, postictal depression and other forms of brain injury,” he said.
“Mathematics is a theoretical course, and sometimes when you take classes, you often wonder how these complex equations and theories can be used in solving real life problems,” he said. “However, during this internship I was able to bridge the gap between the theory and the practical as I was able to use what I have been taught in my math classes to solve a real problem.”
Idumah said he would definitely recommend this program to anyone. “The relationship you will build while working in a collaborative environment is one that would be valuable for life. Also, while you may not get a project that completely aligns with what you are currently working on in school, you can broaden your understanding and learn about other scientific disciplines.”
He said he enjoyed learning about a new area of neuroscience that he would not have been exposed to if not for the internship.
Idumah presented his research during the Summer Argonne Students Symposium at Argonne National Laboratory, and he was one of the winners in a visualization competition among Argonne summer students.
“It’s an event where all student interns at the lab get to present their summer research,” he said. “It was a major highlight for me.”
The NSF MSGI Program is funded by NSF and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.