The Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Bioengineering Institute received a two year $860,000 grant from TATRC to develop the Center for Neuroprosthetics. In addition, WPI will receive a $150,000 grant from the John Adams Innovation Institute within the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to help with strategic planning and business development for the Center and to stage a national neuroprosthetics conference at WPI in 2009. The TATRC grant will cover prosthetics research to include control signal processing, nervous system integration, and the issue-interface between the device and the body.
Ted Clancy Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at WPI will lead the signal processing work. His lab will study the electrical signals that control normal muscle activity, and how that knowledge can be used to control prosthetic limbs. Professor Clancy will measure and analyze signals propagating along the forearm muscles of healthy volunteers, and record the associated movements and forces of the subject’s wrists and fingers. Current prosthetic limbs often rely on remnant muscle control.
Clancy’s work may be able to enhance the control of current prosthetic technology, while also laying the foundation for signal processing for artificial limbs that are connected to the nervous system. This would enable them to be controlled directly by the brain and provide sensory feedback to the brain.
Stephen Lambert, Research Associate Professor with the Bioengineering Institute is directing studies to be able to connect external prosthetic devices with the nervous system. Axons are long thin fibers that extend from neurons and carry electrical impulses across the nervous system with bundles of axons forming nerves. Fully developed axons are covered with a sheath of myelin, a fatty-like substance that insulates the axons and helps them work efficiently. Lambert’s team will try to achieve predictable neuron growth and axon myelination on various surfaces in the laboratory.
The scientists say that whether artificial limbs are controlled by the nervous system or remnant muscle activity, the advanced prosthetics will have a permanent connection to the body. The research goal is for advanced neuroprosthetics to be fully integrated with bone and tissue and under the control of the nervous system.
NIH is actively involved in neuroprosthetics research at the University of Washington. Eberhard E. Fetz, PhD, Professor of Physiology and Biophysics demonstrated for the first time that a direct artificial connection from the brain to muscles can restore voluntary movement in monkeys whose arms have been temporarily anesthetized. Their approach uses brain computer interfaces to record signals from multiple neurons and then converts these signals to control a robotic limb.
Other researchers have delivered artificial stimulation directly to paralyzed arm muscles to drive arm movement—a technique called Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES). This particular study is the first to combine a brain-computer interface with real-time control of FES.
The results of the WPI and NIH research has promising implications for Americans affected by spinal cord injuries, others using artificial limbs, and thousands of others with paralyzing neurological diseases, although clinical applications may be years away.