USU Student and Biological Engineering Research Lab Receive NASA Funding to Study the Impacts of Space on the Brain

January 25th, 2022

News Release — January 25, 2022 — A Utah State University College of Engineering Ph.D. student is helping research the effects of long-term space travel on the human brain, thanks to funds from NASA.

Bailey McFarland is a biological engineering student working in the Brain Micro-Engineering Lab of Yu Huang, a USU assistant professor of biological engineering. McFarland and Huang are working to understand the impacts that microgravity and radiation in space have on the human brain.

Bailey McFarland is a College of Engineering Ph.D. student researching the impacts of long-term space travel on the brain with funding he received from NASA. (Matt Jensen/USU)

Bailey McFarland is a College of Engineering Ph.D. student researching the impacts of long-term space travel on the brain with funding he received from NASA. (Matt Jensen/USU)

Their work is supported by a grant and fellowship award from NASA, which they received last summer. The money provides support to McFarland as a student and funds the research he is doing with Huang.

“The brain is very sensitive and the most unique and special organ in our body and the most important by far,” McFarland said. “And the uniqueness of it lends itself to some interesting problems.

The award covers supplies for the lab and McFarland’s stipend, student fees, and travel expenses so the researchers can travel to conferences and NASA facilities to conduct research.

“We’re very honored to receive this because this is a very prestigious grant and fellowship from NASA,” Huang said.

The team will also be able to directly work with NASA researchers, which McFarland said is one of the most valuable parts of the grant and fellowship.

“I can talk to people who have spent years doing that exact thing, and through these connections, it allows for my research and the research of the lab and the research at USU to be very sharp and applicable,” he said.

The researchers will use brain organoids, small tissue models of human brains, to study how radiation and microgravity affect the brain as well as ways to treat damage that occurs.

While space is the central focus of the project, McFarland said some of what they learn may be applicable a little closer to home in treating things like Alzheimer's and other neurological degeneration.

“What’s interesting about this work is that trying to prevent some of this damage to astronauts can actually help potentially answer some other questions about the brain,” McFarland said.

McFarland applied for the award while working on his senior design project with NASA. Now that he has received the grant to support him and his Ph.D. research, he feels like working for NASA once he graduates could be a reality.

“That is something that is entirely possible now, which is amazing,” McFarland said. “I would love to be able to continue to work on these questions and continue to try to develop ways to help prevent some of the damage that happens to the brain.”

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Writer: Matilyn Mortensen, matilyn.mortensen@usu.edu, 435-797-7512

Contact: Bailey McFarland, bailey.mcfarland@usu.edu
Yu Huang, yu.huang@usu.edu