Breaking Barriers

Nasya Sturdivant, a doctoral student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is working on building an artificial blood-brain barrier. Her research could help develop drugs to treat traumatic brain injury, as well as diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Photo by Matt Reynolds. 


A traumatic brain injury is caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head, or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain. The severity of such an injury may range from mild to severe. At least 2 percent of the U.S. population has been disabled by traumatic brain injuries, including thousands of military veterans.

Nasya Sturdivant, a doctoral student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, hopes her research can improve the treatment of traumatic brain injuries. Sturdivant is working to build an effective synthetic blood-brain barrier that could be replicated in the body.

“I love solving problems,” she said. “I want to impact the world in a positive way and this is my way of doing it.”

A major problem in treating this kind of injury is the blood-brain barrier, a highly selective permeability barrier that separates circulating blood from brain fluid in the central nervous system.

The blood-brain barrier is beneficial to our health. It allows the passage of molecules such as glucose and amino acids that are crucial to neural function, and it prevents infections and toxins from entering the brain. On the other hand, the barrier complicates the treatment of traumatic brain injury, as well as diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons’, because it blocks the passage of medicine or therapeutic drugs.

Sturdivant and biomedical engineering professors Kartik Balachandran and Jeffrey Wolchok are aiming to accomplish this with a device called a stretch bioreactor, which simulates the effects of traumatic brain injuries in the university’s Mechanobiology and Soft Materials Laboratory.

The goal of the project is to build a blood- brain barrier “organ-on-chip” system that will be used as a platform to develop drugs to treat blood-brain barrier dysfunction following traumatic brain injury.

Sturdivant is using a multi-scale approach to understand the cellular and tissue-level mechanisms that lead to the disruption of the blood-brain barrier after a traumatic brain injury.

“We want to make sure that this blood- brain barrier is as close to what is in the body as possible,” she said. “Once we create it, we will subject it to traumatic brain injury with our reactor that we built in the lab. If there are changes in permeability, we can identify the sizes of molecules can we get to pass through the blood-brain barrier, and that will help us determine what drugs we can get into the brain to mediate the effects of the injury.”

Sturdivant is studying at the U of A on a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a U of A Doctoral Academy Fellowship.

“Nasya is a very important part of this research project,” Balachandran said. “She is also my ‘eyes’ in the lab, as well. She supervises undergraduate students on this project and does a great job to ensure they stay on track.”

Sturdivant spent a month learning how to isolate endothelial cells at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

“Nasya is an excellent student and a quick learner,” said Syed Ali, senior biomedical research scientist and head of the Neurochemistry Lab at the toxicological research center. “I was very impressed. She has a high aptitude for learning and asked lots of questions. It’s hard to find students who are independent thinkers, but that’s the only way you will learn, to ask questions.”

Sturdivant first became interested in how stress affects the brain as an undergraduate student at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C. “There are so many disease processes that cause some kind of mechanical change in the body and that’s what I like to observe,” she said.

About The Author

Chris Branam writes about research and economic development at the University of Arkansas. His beats include the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of History.

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
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