Tiny scale scaffolds to help restore damaged circuits in the brain

Dr Vini Gautam was researching materials used in solar cells when she realised these same materials could potentially help restore a person’s vision. Building on that moment of insight, Dr Gautam is now researching more broadly how tiny scale or ‘nanoscaffolds’ can be created to restore damaged circuits in the brain.

Her work combines neuroscience, engineering and technology to solve some of the most persistent and perplexing problems in health and medicine, such as vision loss and Alzheimer’s disease.

Headshot of Dr Vini Gautum with blurred interior in background
Dr Vini Gautam

Initially training in materials engineering, Dr Gautam was investigating novel materials and devices for bionic vision implants as part of her PhD at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore, India. The aim was to help people with retinal degenerative diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa.

“I was researching materials that are used in flexible solar cells and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). I realised that since the polymers in these devices are sensitive to light and produce currents and voltages when light falls on them, why not use them to stimulate retinas in the eye, for example?

“In most cases people go blind because they lose their light-sensitive cells, but all the other circuitry from the eye to the brain, it’s still there. Hence, these materials would be a nice interface.”

I did not have a lot of role models in India when I took up physical sciences or when I did research and my PhD. It would be nice for young girls to grow up looking at women from their own cultures who are successful in different parts of the world

Creating meaningful experiments to further this research meant venturing outside her field of physical sciences and engineering to visit biological laboratories. Her success led to a high-impact paper to conclude her PhD. “There was no looking back: I just continued in this field of bioengineering.”

In 2020 Dr Gautam joined Melbourne School of Engineering at the University of Melbourne, supported by two prestigious and competitive fellowships, one from Westpac, the other a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) from the Australian Research Council. She focuses on the devastating health problems resulting from brain malfunction.

She is developing nanoscaffolds to help understand the formation of brain circuits. The long-term goal is to develop prostheses or brain implants to help restore lost function to a damaged brain region.

Two overlaid microscope images of nanoscaffolding
The growth of brain cells and neural networks can be engineered using nanoscaffolds

Dr Gautam recently secured funding to develop stimulation and recording techniques to better understand the neuroscience behind Alzheimer’s disease. Her research goal is to use technology to interface with neuroscience “because there is so much we don’t understand about the brain”, she says.

Her work does not end in the research laboratory. She enjoys science communication and says the research she does needs to reach the public to achieve maximum impact. She wants to be a role model for international women in STEM.

“I did not have a lot of role models in India when I took up physical sciences or when I did research and my PhD. It would be nice for young girls to grow up looking at women from their own cultures who are successful in different parts of the world.”

Dr Gautam says that although she is making considerable progress there are still hurdles for women in STEM. She’s faced multiple challenges including not being taken seriously in her work, both as a woman and as an early career researcher.

However, Dr Gautam is optimistic about joining the University of Melbourne with its emphasis on diversity and innovation. “It is very rich in cross-disciplinary research, with a lot of technology focus for biomedical research – that’s why I wanted to move there.

“The University is really investing in good research and, in good people who want to make an impact on society and that really resonates with what I want to do.”

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Department of Biomedical Engineering