US researchers aim to develop brain-controlled prostheses

Researchers at a new US research centre aim to develop prostheses that are controlled by, and that send signals back to, the brain.

The government’s National Science Foundation yesterday announced an $18.5m (£11.5m) grant to establish the Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering based at Washington University.

‘The centre will work on robotic devices that interact with, assist and understand the nervous system,’ said director Yoky Matsuoka, Washington University’s associate professor of computer science and engineering.

‘It will combine advances in robotics, neuroscience, electromechanical devices and computer science to restore or augment the body’s ability for sensation and movement.’

Researchers will develop technologies for amputees, patients with spinal-cord injuries and those with cerebral palsy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease or age-related neurological disorders.

‘We already see chips that interface with neural systems and then stimulate the right muscles based on that information, and we have purely mechanical lower-limb prostheses that are fast enough to compete in the Olympics,’ said Matsuoka.

‘Our centre will use sensory and neural feedback to give these devices much more flexibility and control.’

prosthetic hand
Source: Washington University

Washington scientists will work with partner institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to perform the mathematical analysis of the body’s neural signals, to design and test implanted and wearable prosthetic devices and to build new robotic systems.

Early systems might involve remote or wearable devices that help to guide rehabilitation exercises to remap brain signals and restore motor control.

Ultimately, the researchers hope to develop implantable prosthetics that are controlled by brain signals and include sensors that shuttle information back to wearers so they can react to their environment — creating robotic systems that are truly integrated with the body’s nervous system.

‘I think the really interesting development is literally where the silicon meets the collagen,’ said Thomas Daniel, the centre’s deputy director and a Washington biology professor. ‘It remains an open challenge — one of the current problems in neural engineering.’