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Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering

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NSF Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering  (University of Washington)

Research Focus & Anticipated Benefits

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, deputy director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering. “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. The home rehabilitative robot was designed by center director Yoky Matsuoka.

You can program it for specific needs, Daniel says.  “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 could benefit the aging, those suffering from neurological disorders, or who have lost limbs in battle or other trauma, or from diseases. The technology also could benefit people with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, stroke, Parkinsons disease and other movement disorders.

Such new robotic devices also could explore dangerous regions such as war zones or nuclear power plants after earthquakes, thus protecting people from hazards.

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 bodys 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 bodys nervous system.

Education & Outreach

Educationally, the schools will offer new undergraduate and graduate courses, and a graduate certificate program in neural engineering. The center also plans to work with school districts in Seattle and San Diego to develop neural robotics curriculum for middle school and high school students. It will reach out to women, underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities.

The schools will develop graduate student exchanges, so that young scientists can work in research fields not available to them at their home institutions. In addition, the center will host undergraduate students in its laboratories each summer, some of them drawn from the partner institutions.

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  • Scientist touches finger of robotic hand
University of Washington doctoral student Eric Rombokas interacts with a lifelike robotic hand that includes the same number of muscles and tendons as the human hand, allowing the possibility for a more seamless integration with the human nervous system.
Yoky Matsuoka, University of Washington