Meet a USTAR Investigator: Chuck Alan Dorvall

Chuck Dorval always wanted to be a pilot. But when he failed a vision test at 20 years old, he had to pick a new career path.

  A student of electrical engineering at the time, he switched to biomedical engineering with an electrical focus due a growing love and interest for medicine.

Dorval, a Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) assistant professor in bioengineering and neurosciences at the University of Utah, is currently studying various problems in neural modulation, a branch of neuro engineering that is associated with modifying or altering neural activity to treat neurological disorders. His team at the Neural Information Laboratory is particularly interested in Parkinson’s disease and finding new ways to treat symptoms of the illness by implanting an electrode to specific parts of the brain.

“The electrode works like a pacemaker,” said Dorval. “It delivers electricity to the effected part of the brain. However, instead of making your heart beat at about once per second, it shocks your brain about 100 times a second.”

This electrode treatment helps alleviate the Parkinsonian tremor, the hallmark symptom of Parkinson’s disease that most people are familiar with. Dorvall said this type of deep brain stimulation on Parkinson’s patients can eliminate the tremor in seconds. Other symptoms of Parkinson’s, such as the slowness of movement or a shuffling gait, may take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour to go away. The electrode device Dorval’s team is working on has the ability to determine the severity of the tremor and deliver just enough stimulation to get rid of the tremor, and no more.  

“We’re working with systems that are measuring the brain’s activity and figuring out exactly how much and what type of stimulation to deliver right now to provide optimal benefit, without delivering anything extra, without creating any side effects,” said Dorval. “It’s remarkably effective. It’s a pretty big hammer, compared to taking a drug. It doesn’t cure the disease, but helps the symptoms go away. So these people can go back to work and drive again.”

Dorvall’s group is designing new electrodes that can be implanted in the brain, which will be able to stimulate the brain much more precisely. The Neural Information Lab uses electrophysiological recordings, computational neuroscience and neuronal information theory to decipher symbols used by brain cells to process information, interpret the world, retain and retrieve memories and command coordinated muscle activity.

“The brain’s a very complicated device, compared to the heart,” said Dorval.  “With the heart, you can shock it anywhere and the same thing will happen, it will beat. When you shock the brain, there are millions or billions of different locations where you could deliver a little bit of current and it would have an effect on symptoms.”

The long term goal for Dorval’s group in the Neural Information Lab is to extend their findings and solutions to other neurological disorders beyond Parkinson’s disease.

“There are many neurological disorders, and we know that in a few like Parkinson’s we have discovered that we can treat them with this innovative technology that doesn’t require drug delivery, it isn’t some sort of washing of the brain, it doesn’t have side effects associated with too much of one drug or too little of another, so all these neurological disorders are functions of what’s going wrong in potentially very small circuits in the brain,” said Dorval. “So we would like to build devices that are so fine tunable that they could manage and treat symptoms of many of these neurological disorders.”