Advancing Health and Robotics

Center to develop new assistive devices, other technology.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

The human brain has the remarkable ability to send signals that can move a computer cursor, a wheelchair, or even a prosthetic limb.  “Could you think the word ‘pinch’ and make a little robot pinch with its fingers?” says Thomas Daniel, professor of biology at the University of Washington. “The answer is yes.”

Imagine, for example, a “bionic” hand virtually identical to a human one. It looks and moves like one, and the brain can control it just like the real thing. It is composed of bone-shaped structures, with tiny motors that behave like muscles, and threads that act like tendons. Equally important, it can provide feedback to patients and their physicians.

“When you move it, you can accomplish certain tasks with your arms, and, because it senses what you are doing, it can also keep track of you in your home,” says Daniel, who also serves as deputy director of the Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, where researchers are further developing the home rehabilitative robot designed by center director Yoky Matsuoka.

“You can program it for specific needs,” Daniel adds.  “You can do arm exercises with your little robot--it’s a form of physical therapy without having to go to physical therapy--and it can tell us how you are performing. There’s no way you could get that from a rubber ball.”

Advances like these offer exciting possibilities within the field of health and robotics, and for the growth of new assistive devices and other technology.  Center researchers are studying neural systems and their relationship to motor commands, a connection that potentially could benefit the aging, those suffering from neurological disorders, or who have lost limbs in battle or other trauma, or from diseases. The new technology under development by center scientists also could benefit people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.

Moreover, such new robotic devices also could “explore dangerous regions, such as war zones or, for example, the nuclear power plants after the Japan earthquake,” thus protecting people from exposure to these risks, Daniel says, adding: “There is a crying need for this new technology.”

The center is part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Engineering Research Centers program, which focuses on areas of research considered vital to national interests in science and engineering innovation, technological advancement, economic expansion and education of future innovation leaders. The program, begun in 1985, aims to promote technological breakthroughs for new products and services, and prepare U.S. engineering graduates for jobs in the global economy.

NSF is providing the center with $18.5 million during the next five years.

The center is based at the University of Washington, with research partners at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, San Diego State University, and historically minority serving institutions, Morehouse College and Spelman College, both in Atlanta, and Southwestern College, in Chula Vista. Other collaborators include researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Tokyo, and such nonacademic research institutions as the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the La Jolla Bioengineering Institute, and hospitals in Seattle and San Diego.

Twenty-three companies also have signed on to support the center, among them Microsoft, Intel and Lockheed Martin, as well as smaller companies and startups such as Impinj Inc. and NeuroSky Inc.

The researchers will perform mathematical analysis of the body’s neural signals; design and test implanted and wearable prosthetic devices; and build new robotic systems. Ultimately, researchers hope to design implantable prosthetics controlled by brain signals, with sensors that send information back to wearers, enabling them to interact with their environment, and making these robotic systems a near-seamless part of the body’s nervous system.