Washington People: Eric Leuthardt

Leuthardt uses technology to understand, aid injured brains

(From left) Eric C. Leuthardt, MD, shows Nicholas Szrama, a third-year MD/PhD student, and David Bundy, a third-year doctoral student, an image of one of the brain’s motor, or movement-controlling, networks. “One of Eric’s many talents is his great ability to collaborate effectively with people of all different backgrounds and expertise,” says Daniel Moran, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering. “He is quick to understand their scientific point of view and to provide insightful solutions to many problems. Washington University is a very collaborative place, and Eric thrives in this type of environment.”

Eric C. Leuthardt pauses, furrows his brow for a moment and laughs as he tries to imagine what might slow him down.

“The need for sleep?” he says.

At 37, Leuthardt, MD, assistant professor of neurosurgery, is No. 5 on a list of the world’s 100 most prolific patent holders. He posts entries to his blog, Brains and Machines, on Tumblr about general brain science and his own work as a surgeon, teacher, researcher and inventor. He directs WUSTL’s Center for Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology, a multidisciplinary research center. And he just sent drafts of his first novel, a techno-thriller in the mold of some of Michael Crichton’s novels, to prospective publishers.

He may live in multiple fast-paced arenas at the frenetic intersections of science, technology and culture, but Leuthardt still keeps an active interest in contemplation and reflection.

“I like an appreciation for the meaning of things,” says Leuthardt, who is not formally religious but whose undergraduate studies at Saint Louis University included theology. “I like seeing the bigger picture and recognizing that while we always seek to know more, there’s a limit to what finite human minds can understand in an infinite universe.”

This capacity for reflection is one of the qualities Leuthardt highlights with admiration in Keith Crutcher, PhD, his mentor at a high school science internship at the University of Cincinnati. According to Leuthardt, the internship changed his life.

“He was thoughtful about every aspect of his work and life,” Leuthardt says. “I could talk to him about the research I was working on, which looked at nerve growth factors and the growth of nerve cell branches, but I could also talk to him about history, philosophy or anything else.”

Life at 100 percent

Born in Boston in 1973 to a German father who worked in the auto industry and an Italian mother who was a schoolteacher, Leuthardt lived briefly in Stuttgart, Germany, but spent the bulk of his childhood in Cincinnati.

While he was an intern at the University of Cincinnati, Leuthardt had a chance to watch brain surgery.

“Not long after that I was doing microsurgery myself, removing clumps of nerve cells in chick embryos,” Leuthardt says. “I loved it. I love the intensity of doing things at 100 percent, and neurosurgery requires that.”

After undergraduate studies at Saint Louis University, Leuthardt went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1999. He returned to St. Louis for neurosurgery residency at Washington University and then was a fellow at the University of Washington. He returned to Washington University in St. Louis in 2006 as a faculty member in the departments of Neurological Surgery and Biomedical Engineering.

“It’s just the ideal job for me here,” Leuthardt says. “I have so many amazing collaborators, and my departmental head, Ralph Dacey (Jr., MD, the Henry G. and Edith R. Schwartz Professor and chair of Neurological Surgery), helps make it possible for me to balance my clinical career with my research and technical interests.”

Mapping problem areas

Leuthardt treats adult patients with brain tumors or epilepsy. In many instances, treatments for these conditions require a detailed mapping of the patient’s brain. Leuthardt and his colleagues need the maps to identify both the problematic regions that must be surgically removed and areas involved in important brain functions that must be preserved.

This mapping is accomplished through electrocorticography, an approach that involves temporarily implanting a grid of electrodes encased in a plastic film on the surface of the brain. The electrodes allow scientists to record brain activity seen as brainwaves, the electrical signals produced when many brain cells fire at once. Implantation on the surface of the brain gives them much more precise readings and access to a broader range of signal frequencies than they can get from electrodes placed on the outside of the skull.

Those details are important for treatment, Leuthardt says. In some epilepsy patients suffering from persistent medication-resistant seizures, getting the seizures under control can require removal of significant sections of the brain. The treatment can be very effective at getting brain damaging seizures under control, but surgeons want to be certain they remove only the brain sections that cause seizures.

Bridging brain gaps

With the patient’s permission, Leuthardt and his colleagues also can use the temporary implants to advance research into brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), or devices that allow the brain to communicate directly with computers. The goal is to use the interfaces to restore abilities lost to brain injury or developmental disability. Brain signals read by a BCI could, for example, be used to robotically move an arm paralyzed by stroke.

As a demonstration of the approach’s potential, five years ago, Leuthardt, along with Daniel Moran, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and others made it possible via a BCI for a patient to control a video game using only his thoughts.

“One of Eric’s many talents is his great ability to collaborate effectively with people of all different backgrounds and expertise,” Moran says. “He is quick to understand their scientific point of view and to provide insightful solutions to many problems. Washington University is a very collaborative place, and Eric thrives in this type of environment.”

Scientists are laying the groundwork for clinical tests of permanent implants. Leuthardt estimates that testing may begin in three to five years.

Leuthardt also can use data from the interfaces to advance basic brain science. For decades, scientists studying brain activity have normally looked at what parts of the brain become active during certain tasks and when they become active. Recently, though, Leuthardt and his colleagues reported that the frequency of the brain activity provides a third important dimension that can help scientists understand what the brain is doing.

Bringing worlds together

In 2006, Leuthardt established and became director of the Center for Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology.

“To make a great impact, medical research needs to be about not just science and medicine but also law and industry and the FDA and all sorts of stuff not typically considered medical,” he says.

Eric and Melissa Leuthardt married in December 2010.

The center’s programs include quarterly invention sessions that bring faculty together from several medical, engineering and scientific departments to consider challenges and problems in four areas: tumor/vascular, pediatric, spine/orthopedics and functional neurosurgery. The sessions typically involve several physicians and engineering or science faculty and often include one or two representatives from the medical device industry.

The center also administers a fellowship program that teams faculty from neurosurgery and engineering with students from both areas for three months to work on a problem in neurosurgery. The program had seven fellows and two faculty in its first year; eight fellows and four faculty are participating this year.

“In three months, that fellowship goes from pie-in-the-sky idea to drafted design to actual prototype that you can hold in your hand, and that’s an incredibly efficient process,” Leuthardt says.

Fast facts about Eric C. Leuthardt

Spouse: Melissa, a clinical liaison in business development for Barnes-Jewish Hospital
Lives in: University City, Mo.
Favorite authors include: Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert
Likes to listen to: Cake, Naomi, Wilco, Gorillaz and The Police
Hobbies: photography, painting and creative writing
Favorite places to eat include: Harvest in Richmond Heights, Mo.; Wasabi in Clayton, Mo.; and Citizen Kane’s Steakhouse in Kirkwood, Mo.