Mechanics of the Mind

Professor Johannes Weickenmeier is using resources from the Semcer Fellowship to study the human brain.

There’s a lot of talk these days about infusing human-like intelligence into the machines we use. But what if we looked at brains and machines from another perspective? What are the possibilities when a talented researcher explores the mechanical aspects of the human brain?

Professor Johannes Weickenmeier is leading research on the mechanical behavior of the central nervous system. At Stevens, he is a member of the Center for Neuromechanics – the first of its kind in the nation. Neuromechanics is an emerging interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand the function, structure and health of the human brain.

“I’m a mechanical engineer by background,” Weickenmeier said. “There are mathematical and physics-based tools we can apply to biological problems like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Mechanical engineering can help uncover some of the mechanisms behind the progression of these diseases throughout the brain. For example, I look at a lot of medical imaging that I get from doctors. I’m trying to develop tools to understand the changes you can observe in someone’s brain over a longer period of time, based on some physics-driven model.”

Weickenmeier and his colleagues are expanding understanding of diseases that have the potential to affect more than 12 million Americans within the next 30 years. Their work, recently published in Physical Review Letters, may identify the starting points and pathways of toxic proteins that cause neurodegenerative diseases. “Toxic proteins are seeded in distinct brain regions depending on the diseases,” Weickenmeier said. “Their spread across the brain – and therefore the symptoms they produce – is dictated by the connective pathways available to them.”

Weickenmeier earned his doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He came to Stevens in 2018 following a research fellowship at Stanford. “Stevens is a very collegial space where individuals can shine. That is definitely the reason why I chose to come here. I saw the ability to have an impact. The school is very supportive of growing a strong research program.”

Frank Semcer and Family For his research potential, Weickenmeier has been awarded the Frank Semcer, Sr. ’65 Fellowship, which provides resources for faculty to employ doctoral student assistants. With his wife, Mary Jane, Semcer established the fellowship after making gifts to support scholarships and bio-tissue engineering within the Semcer Center for Healthcare Innovation.

Although Weickenmeier was recently awarded a prestigious and competitive grant from the National Institutes of Health, he finds further meaning in the Semcers’ gift. “It is incredibly personal,” Weickenmeier said. “I think it creates a connection to society, to see people who are interested and want to support this type of work. It is wonderful validation, and a spectacular opportunity.”