By Karim Shamsi-Basha

When a leading mission-oriented service organization – Civitan International – partners with one of the best medical institutions in the world – UAB – the results could break the blood-brain barrier.

Megan Rich, University of Alabama at Birmingham graduate research assistant in neuroscience, is revolutionizing curing disease and, in a larger sense, understanding how our brain works. Rich is working on penetrating the blood-brain barrier in a noninvasive way.

“What we are trying to do is create a noninvasive method of neuromodulation, so the idea is that we can send drugs to specific parts of the brain that wouldn’t normally cross the blood-brain barrier,” Rich said. “The blood-brain barrier exists between general blood circulation and circulation that is allowed to enter the brain tissue. This barrier prevents most drugs from getting into the brain and can be manipulated with focused ultrasound.”

Rich further explained in layman’s terms:

“Our goal with humans is to have a method where we can manipulate brain activity in particular parts of the brain without taking invasive measures such as brain surgery,” she said.

The work Rich and others are doing in neurobiology and radiology at UAB is groundbreaking and can lead to treating brain disorders. Many scientists across the country have arrived at varying degrees of the technique with ultrasound, but Rich and UAB are on the forefront of using the technique to manipulate brain activity and animal behavior.

“We are doing this with a big picture in mind. We are still doing research on animals and have been able to open the blood-brain barrier at very particular locations,” she said. “It’s already shown to be safe and effective in humans and it’s a very promising technique for both clinical and research applications. The end goal ultimately is to target diseased tissue and, in addition, to be able to understand the fundamentals of the way the brain works, which of course translates to helping us cure disease.”

Civitan International is funding Rich’s research, which is done at the Civitan International Research Center (CIRC) at UAB. The CIRC was established in 1989 with the support of Civitan International, which was founded in Birmingham in 1917.

The mission of the CIRC is to improve the well-being and the quality of life of individuals and families affected by intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The CIRC carries that mission well with researchers like Rich and the work she is pioneering.

Terry Schrimscher, director of public relations with Civitan International, explains why the organization has invested so much in brain research.

“The goal is to make life better for the people around us and maybe bring a cure for one of these developmental brain disorders like autism, Down syndrome, Rett, dementia and Alzheimer’s. These disorders affect one in every 10 Americans.”

Mix philanthropy with science, add a little mind, heart and soul; you have a recipe that could heal humanity.

The Civitan Centennial Celebration national convention will be in Birmingham on June 24. For more information, visit and

Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning journalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at