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The field of bionics is no longer merely science fiction fantasy.
The field of bionics is no longer merely science fiction fantasy.
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Engineering Research Center

The Neurobotics Lab's prosthetic hand is a close replica of an actual human hand. Researchers are working to integrate it with the human nervous system. Credit: M. Levin, University of Washington
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The Neurobotics Lab's prosthetic hand
The Neurobotics Lab's prosthetic hand is a close replica of an actual human hand. Researchers are working to integrate it with the human nervous system. Credit: M. Levin, University of Washington
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A campy 1970s television series chronicled the adventures of astronaut Steve Austin, “a man barely alive” after a spectacular shuttle crash, who nevertheless survived to become the world’s first bionic man.

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him,” a mysterious voice intoned over a title sequence depicting x-rays, schematics and surgical scenes. “We have the technology.”

Sure enough, “The Six Million Dollar Man” soon emerged from the hospital outfitted in a spiffy red track suit and equipped with uber-high-tech bionic parts rendering him “better . . . stronger . . . faster” than before.

Thirty-five years later, the field of bionics is no longer merely science fiction fantasy. Cochlear implants restore a measure of lost hearing. Artificial hearts support circulation in transplant patients. And robotics are replacing traditional artificial limbs—thanks in large part to San Diego State engineers.

Inventing the future

Imagine a pianist performing Chopin with robotic hands, or a wounded veteran sensing warm sand under prosthetic feet as he runs on the beach. Full dexterity. Full sensation. That’s the future these researchers are helping to invent.

Here’s how far they’ve already come. Recently at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, a man who’d lost arm function moved the fingers of a robotic hand with his thoughts alone, wirelessly transmitted to the prosthesis by sensors implanted in his brain.

The UW team responsible for that remarkable advancement is now partnering with the SDSU College of Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to further the development of real-world bionics.

The universities’ combined research strengths and convincing preliminary progress  impressed the National Science Foundation (NSF), an agency that exhorts America’s engineers to “make imagination real.”

In June, the three institutions prevailed over more than 100 other groups in winning an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant to establish an Engineering Research Center (ERC) for sensorimotor neural engineering. The coveted grant will support five years of research and is SDSU’s first ERC award.

Based in Seattle, the ERC aims to develop robotic devices that interact seamlessly with the human body to restore or improve sensation and movement.

Extracting neural signals via implantable, wearable and interactive sensors, these new-generation prosthetics will take over the job of damaged or missing nerves by capturing and transmitting information to and from the brain and either muscles or robotics.

The ERC’s director is Yoky Matsuoka, a distinguished UW associate professor of computer science and engineering recognized as a pioneer in the fusion of neuroscience and robotics.

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SDSU's participation in the Engineering Research Center demonstrates the university's role in Leading Innovation and Discovery, a key initiative of the Campaign for SDSU. From Donald P. Shiley BioSciences Center to the Coastal Marine Institut, SDSU researchers are making a difference. Learn more about SDSU's Leading Innovation and Discovery and how you can contribute.

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Sensors on the brain

Leading San Diego State's involvement is Kee Moon, professor of mechanical engineering, who has assembled a team of 10 from the mechanical and electrical engineering faculty. Together, they will develop technologies that repair and improve human bodies by integrating robots controlled by the human brain. Professor Sam Kassegne will run the clean room, in which much of their work will be done.

Known as CBRAINE—an acronym for the Center for Biological, Robotic, Adaptive Interface for Neural Engineering—the ERC component at SDSU plays a critical role in the project. Moon and his Aztec colleagues, including graduate and undergraduate students, will engineer and produce the prototypical sensors and develop the wireless communication capability to operate them.

“We’ll be developing implantable, biocomparable neural interfaces,” Moon said, “that is, sensors to be placed on the brain. The wireless interface for these devices will also be developed here at San Diego State.”

CBRAINE members will also work with medical ethicists on a "wireless transmission protocol" to protect the neural signals pulled from the brain and processed to control muscles and robotics.

“You don’t want that information stolen,” said David Hayhurst, dean of SDSU’s College of Engineering.  

To invent brain-based sensors, the SDSU researchers will first need to figure out a mathematical model of brain function.

“We want to achieve a deep mathematical understanding of how biological systems acquire and process information, and then use that knowledge to reverse engineer the nervous system’s sensorimotor functions,” Moon said.

“That will allow us to develop engineering models for devices that work seamlessly with the body to correct neural deficits and boost neural capabilities.”

Regional reputation

UW researchers invited San Diego State to partner in the grant competition because of the particular strengths offered by both SDSU and the San Diego region.

“One of the strategic decisions made by the University of Washington was to choose universities that were themselves strong and located in areas very strong in biotech,” he said.

“Based on our faculty’s expertise, microprocessing of materials used in the creation of electronic sensors is something we do well here,” he continued, “and because San Diego is a wireless hub, we’ve also developed expertise in wireless communication.”

SDSU’s exemplary technology transfer office and the region’s reputation as fertile ground for start-up companies fulfill another key NSF grant requirement: to create technologies that end up in the marketplace.

“San Diego is incredibly good at successfully transitioning technology into the marketplace and creating businesses around new inventions, especially in bio-tech,” Hayhurst said.

“This research effort will create a serious amount of intellectual property. We expect both large companies and small start-up firms to benefit. We expect even within SDSU we can create spin-off companies.”

Several established firms—including Microsoft, Intel and Lockheed Martin—have already signed on as participants in the new ERC’s effort to develop sensorimotor devices. Industry partners will be expected to match NSF funding.

As new commercial applications create new jobs, Hayhurst pointed out, SDSU will also prepare workers to fill them. All three partnering universities will offer two new undergraduate courses, two new graduate courses and a graduate certificate program in neural engineering. The center will also help school districts in Seattle and San Diego develop neural robotics curriculums to interest budding scientists.

“In the long run, we’re committed to educating the next generation, training a diverse workforce for new devices and opportunities coming with the integration of engineering, biology, neuroscience, and healthcare,” Hayhurst said.
 
The ultimate goal

Early applications of real-life bionics won’t be nearly as dramatic as sci-fi scenarios. One initial use could be in physical therapy. A sensor-equipped robot that extracts neural signals from a patient’s touch could help a stroke survivor exercise a leg or arm. For convenience, such a device could be installed in the patient’s home and monitored remotely by a hospital therapist.

A next-stage application could be implanting sensors in the muscles to recreate sensation in paralyzed or prosthetic limbs. In such cases, sensorimotor devices in the remaining part of the limb may be as effective in restoring neural feedback as sensors on the brain. Similarly, neurochips may be able to electrically stimulate and reanimate muscles paralyzed by spinal cord injuries.

“Our ultimate goal,” Moon summarized, “is to remotely control a robotic device through neuro function, not joy sticks.”

As research continues, sensorimotor neural engineering may just catch up with Hollywood. Someday, we will have the technology to rebuild human bodies.


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