Faculty Profile: Huan (John) Wang

Huan (John) Wang has practically got the field to himself. A neurosurgeon at Carle Clinic, Wang is starting a research line at the Beckman Institute that will go where almost no one has gone before: exploring the thermal properties of the brain.

“I am probably one of less than five (researchers) specifically studying brain temperature as a parameter,” Wang said. “I’m interested in developing the field and in understanding it for normal states and for pathological states.

“As a neurosurgeon, obviously that would extend into potential therapeutic alterations, so we could have implantable devices to alter regional brain temperature and achieve therapeutic effects.”

Wang said that while body temperature has been studied extensively, much less is known about the important role that temperature plays on brain function for one solid reason. “We essentially know very little about brain temperature because it’s a well-protected organ.”

Wang plans to change that through a new facility – tentatively called the Thermal Neuroscience Laboratory (TNL). Wang, who earned his M.D. at the University of Kentucky and did his residency with the University of Illinois College of Medicine, will continue to work as a neurosurgeon at Carle and will soon join faculty at the U of I College of Medicine. The TNL will serve as his hub for research into brain temperature.

Wang, a faculty member in Beckman’s Bioimaging Science and Technology (BST) group, knows the importance of collaboration at the Beckman Institute. He is currently working with Beckman colleagues Brad Sutton and John Georgiadis from the College of Engineering toward development of a non-invasive cerebral imaging modality to get his project started. For the preliminary studies of brain temperature they will be using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

“The starting point is having a non-invasive MRI protocol to evaluate brain temperature,” Wang said. “We want to get a measurement for understanding thermal mapping, how brain temperature distributes from different areas of the surface to the core of the brain. We want to understand spatial and temporal variations for this parameter of the brain, and then extend that into what alterations it has in various pathological states involving the brain.”

Wang said the project’s first goal using MRI – chosen for its non-invasive and high resolution qualities – will be to understand thermal properties in normal states of the brain, then move on to pathological states. He envisions other studies involving populations like the elderly and, in concert with the research and technology development, perhaps someday creation of therapeutic interventions such as an implantable device for controlling brain temperature.

“If in 10 years we can have a good understanding of temperature distribution from a spatial and temporal standpoint and study various pathological populations, say dementia with the aging population, we can understand how the temperature is different in these populations and why,” he said. “And then we can see if there is any therapeutic modulation we can do.”

According to Wang, therapies could be developed even as the experimental research matures.

“They are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “The parallel project will be developing a potential implantable device to alter brain temperature in a rapid (way). The therapeutic implication is that, even if you don’t understand brain temperature, you know in certain states that lowering brain temperature will arrest a pathological process such as seizures.”
Wang’s research is informed by the fact that he has had firsthand experience dealing with brain pathologies.

“I have seen what pouring chilled saline onto a seizing brain will do,” he said. “I say why can’t we just implant something that drops the cortical temperature and helps seizure patients?”

Wang said the research area of cerebral thermal medicine and related topics is an important one. For example, he said, people with mental disorders can have different temperature distributions in their brain because of their pathological state.

“Thermal properties are important, profusion is important, how much heat is coming in and how much is leaving, circulation, are all important,” he said. “The best thing (about this research) is we would start to get a glimpse of the importance of brain temperature.

“We all know it’s important but we don’t know its temporal variation. Body temperature, we know that in the morning it is lower and in the afternoon it is higher and what it does in disease states. But we don’t know what the brain’s normal physiological variations are. And that is an extended project of its own.”

This article is part of the Spring 2009 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.