Engineering Senior Joy Jackson Honored for Addressing Key Health Disparity for Black People

Her innovative electrode design improves EEG readings for people with Afro-textured hair.

Joy Jackson, a senior in the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), was honored in a national competition for designing an innovative electrode that generates accurate electroencephalogram (EEG) readings for Black people and other people with tight curly hair.

“EEGs are very popular in neuroscience research due to their noninvasive nature, good temporal resolution, and relatively low cost,” said Jackson. “But the natural characteristics of African, or Afro-textured, hair with tight curls or coils can prevent electrodes from adhering properly to the scalp. Therefore, EEG readings from Black participants may not be accurate.”

“It was inspiring to see Joy work on a high-impact problem that has been largely ignored by medical researchers,” said her project mentor, Jorge E Bohorquez, Ph.D., professor of professional practice. “She was passionate about investing her own time to come up with a new device that could address a nationwide health disparity issue by improving brain-related care for Black people.”

Jackson led a three-student “HairWare” team that received an honorable mention in the 2022 National Institutes of Health (NIH) DEBUT challenge, which drew 73 applications from 43 universities in four countries. The contest for technology solutions for unmet healthcare needs was organized by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and VentureWell, with the award ceremony set for October 14 in San Antonio.

“This is an amazing achievement and great recognition for our students and programs,” said Fabrice Manns, Ph.D., chair and professor of BME. Jackson’s undergraduate teammates were Kaylin Hayes, who is studying neuroscience, and Chika Nwosu, a biology major.

Solving health disparities

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) define health disparities as “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by populations that have been disadvantaged by their social or economic status, geographic location, and environment.”

EEGs are critical in identifying neurological diseases like epilepsy, a disease which Black people are more likely to suffer from than White people, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. Jackson’s work may save lives in the future as Black patients receive more accurate EEG results.

During an EEG test, electrodes are attached to the scalp with a conductive paste in order to measure electrical brain activity and diagnose a wide range of brain conditions, such as narcolepsy, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Jackson, inaccuracy in current EEG tests can lead to exclusion of data collected from Black participants, reinforcing health disparities. To solve the problem, Jackson and her team designed a custom electrode holder with two components that fit together for a quick and easy assembly: the housing, which holds the electrode during the recording, and a hairpin inserted into the housing. The EEG operator can slide the device onto parted hair and insert the electrode into the housing to complete the setup.

“The prongs of the pin hold the hair surrounding the electrode out of the way,” said Jackson. “The housing also immobilizes the electrode and keeps it in close proximity to the scalp during recordings for proper contact.”

Developing a prototype

Jackson began thinking about the electrode problem as a sophomore and soon found that that Black participants tended to be excluded from studies involving EEG data analysis or experiments. “I saw there was not a lot of awareness of the issue of tight, curly hair, which affects me personally,” she said. “My hair is in braids now, but my teammates and advisor saw my mane in full glory.”

Last year, Jackson began designing 3D models in SolidWorks and steadily refined her work. “I would try them on my own hair to see if they worked,” she added. “I brought in two friends, both in premed fields, to get their perspectives on the clinical applications of the electrode.”

She fabricated her prototype using multi-jet fusion 3D-printing technology and began testing the electrode, under the guidance of Bohorquez. “We had a lot of pulling her hair during her testing,” Bohorquez said. “But our tests showed the quality of the connection was very good.”

This fall, Jackson is continuing the device development in an undergraduate research elective with Bohorquez. “We are trying the electrode on more people with different hair textures,” she said. “Even though the electrode works quite well, there may still be room for improvement.”

Looking ahead, Jackson plans to continue her education in graduate school and work for a biomedical device company. “Through this project, I found I really like the research and development field,” she said. “I think it will be a great career for me.”

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