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Steven J. Schiff, MD, PhD alumnus, class of 1974

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Dr. Steven SchiffDr. Steven Schiff’s mission is simple and ambitious: to find better ways to treat epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and infant Hydrocephalus. As the director of the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering, Professor of Neurosurgery and Brush Chair Professor of Engineering, Dr. Schiff has spent decades researching the physics of nervous system disorders. By focusing on understanding the pathological dynamics in the brain in terms of the underlying physics and how technology can help treat these diseases, Dr. Schiff believes the future of treatment for brain and behavioral disorders will often lie not in medication or surgery, but in electrical-stimulation therapy – or in layman’s terms – pacemakers for the brain.

Graduating from Liberty High School in 1974, Dr. Schiff began his career at M.I.T., where he received his Bachelors of Science degree in 1977. At Duke University, he achieved his MD in 1980, his PhD in Physiology in 1985 and completed his general surgery internship in 1981. After finishing his neurosurgery residency at Duke in 1989, he began a Pediatric Neurosurgery fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Prior to being recruited by Penn State in 2006, Dr. Schiff was Krasnow Professor of Neurobiology, Professor of Psychology and Chief of the Neural Dynamics Laboratory at George Mason University, and was a past attending neurosurgeon, Associate Director of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine, and co-director of the Epilepsy Surgery Program at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC.

Dr. Schiff is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has been listed in the Guide to America’s Top Physicians, served as the Divisional Associate Editor for Physical Review Letters, and is a member of the Editorial Boards for the Journal of Neural Engineering, Journal of Computational Neuroscience, and the Physical Review. He holds seven patents for different devices that help control and correct neurological disorders, and wrote the first book on Neural Control Engineering.

In 2011, Dr. Schiff testified before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations Hearings on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights for his work treating and preventing Infant and Child Hydrocephalus in Eastern Africa. The World Health Organization estimates that neonatal infections lead to the death of over 1 million infants each year, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. The microorganisms that cause these infections in the developing world differ from those seen in the United States, and Dr. Schiff and the colleague who inspired him to join this effort, Dr. Ben Warf, are developing novel ways to treat this disorder. Instead of relying on an implanted tube or shunt to drain fluid from the brain (which requires frequent operations for life-threatening shunt failure), the doctors are are studying a method using a scope that created a new pathway for fluid to escape the cavities of the brain and then prevents the tissue from producing more fluid. Together, Dr. Schiff and Dr. Warf created a means to treat infant and child hydrocephalus that is far more successful than previous methods, and outlined a plan for prevention that is achievable for physicians and effective for patients in these developing nations. By testifying before Congress, Dr. Schiff and his colleague Dr. Warf made valuable strides in raising awareness of this growing, world-wide health issue.

At the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering, Dr. Schiff has assembled and leads one of the most interdisciplinary bioengineering collaborations in the nation, with the common goal of contributing significantly to the next generation of brain interface technologies. Dr. Schiff believes that the future of seizure treatment – and perhaps the treatment of brain and behavioral disorders in general – belong to electrical-stimulation devices. The stimulation, delivered by means of thumbnail-sized computer chips, sends tiny jolts of electrical current applied to specific neural targets. The goal is to block abnormal electrical patterns and stop the symptoms of disease – seizures, migraines and tremors – before they happen. A primary goal is to develop ways to interact with the brain electrically and find a more sensitive, precise and individualized strategy to monitor brain activity and suppress seizures before they strike. The purpose of Dr. Schiff’s work is to replace surgery and medication, when possible, as the treatment of choice for those suffering with chronic neurological disorders.

According to Dr. Schiff, “the brain is the one thing we still don’t understand” and his interest in neuroscience stems from the allure of the unknown - that it is truly the “last frontier.” However, for many suffering from neurological disorders the work being done at the center will free them from an uncontrollable and painful condition. Steven Schiff, MD, PhD is the director of the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering, Brush Chair Professor of Engineering, Professor of Neurosurgery, Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics and Professor of Physics at Penn State University. A Pediatric Neurosurgeon, Dr. Schiff’s research interests focus on understanding pathological dynamics in the brain in terms of the underlying physics, and how technology based on this understanding can treat diseases such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain.


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