DALLAS (SMU) – Lightning-fast connections between robotic limbs and
the human brain may be within reach for injured soldiers and other
amputees with the establishment of a multimillion-dollar research
center led by SMU engineers.
Funded by a Department of Defense
initiative dedicated to audacious challenges and intense time schedules,
the Neurophotonics Research Center will develop two-way fiber optic
communication between prosthetic limbs and peripheral nerves. This
connection will be key to operating realistic robotic arms, legs and
hands that not only move like the real thing, but also “feel” sensations
like pressure and heat.
Successful completion of the fiber optic
link will allow for sending signals seamlessly back and forth between
the brain and artificial limbs, allowing amputees revolutionary freedom
of movement and agility. Partners in the Neurophotonics Research Center
also envision man-to-machine applications that extend far beyond
prosthetics, leading to medical breakthroughs like brain implants for
the control of tremors, neuro-modulators for chronic pain management and
implants for patients with spinal cord injuries.
| Volkan Otugen|
believe their new technologies can ultimately provide the solution to
the kind ofinjury that left actor Christopher Reeve paralyzed after a
horse riding accident. “This technology has the potential to patch the
spinal cord above and below a spinal injury,” said Marc Christensen,
center director and electrical engineering chair in SMU’s Lyle School of
Engineering. “Someday, we will get there.”
The Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the $5.6 million center with
industry partners as part of its Centers in Integrated Photonics
Engineering Research (CIPhER) project, which aims to dramatically
improve the lives of the large numbers of military amputees returning
from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently available prosthetic devices
commonly rely on cables to connect them to other parts of the body for
operation – for example, requiring an amputee to clench a healthy muscle
in the chest to manipulate a prosthetic hand. The movement is typically
deliberate, cumbersome, and far from lifelike.
The goal of the
Neurophotonics Research Center is to develop a link compatible with
living tissue that will connect powerful computer technologies to the
human nervous system through hundreds or even thousands of sensors
embedded in a single fiber. Unlike experimental electronic nerve
interfaces made of metal, fiber optic technology would not be rejected
or destroyed by the body’s immune system.
performance with modern digital technologies is one of the great
frontiers in engineering,” said Christensen. “Providing this kind of
port to the nervous system will enable not only realistic prosthetic
limbs, but also can be applied to treat spinal cord injuries and an
array of neurological disorders.”
The center brings together
researchers from SMU, Vanderbilt University, Case Western Reserve
University, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of
North Texas. The Neurophotonics Research Center’s industrial partners
include Lockheed Martin (Aculight), Plexon, Texas Instruments, National
Instruments and MRRA. Together, this group of university and industry
researchers will develop and demonstrate new increasingly sophisticated
two-way communication connections to the nervous system.
movement or sensation a human being is capable of has a nerve signal at
its root. “The reason we feel heat is because a nerve is stimulated,
telling the brain there’s heat there,” Christensen said.
center formed around a challenge from the industrial partners to build a
fiber optic sensor scaled for individual nerve signals: “Team members
have been developing the individual pieces of the solution over the past
few years, but with this new federal funding we are able to push the
technology forward into an integrated system that works at the cellular
level,” Christensen said.
The research builds on partner
universities’ recent advances in light stimulation of individual nerve
cells and new, extraordinarily sensitive optical sensors being developed
at SMU. Volkan Otugen, SMU site director for the center and Lyle
School mechanical engineering chair, has pioneered research on tiny
spherical devices that sense the smallest of signals utilizing a concept
known as “whispering gallery modes.” A whispering gallery is an
enclosed circular or elliptical area, like that found beneath an
architectural dome, in which whispers can be heard clearly on the other
side of the space.
The ultimate combination of advanced
optical nerve stimulation and nerve-sensing technologies will create a
complete, two-way interface that does not currently exist. “It will
revolutionize the field of brain interfaces,” Christensen said.
fiction writers have long imagined the day when the understanding and
intuition of the human brain could be enhanced by the lightning speed of
computing technologies,” said Geoffrey Orsak, dean of the SMU Lyle
School of Engineering. “With this remarkable research initiative, we are
truly beginning a journey into the future that will provide
immeasurable benefits to humanity.”
A private university located
in the heart of Dallas, SMU is building on the vision of its founders,
who in 1911 imagined a distinguished center for learning emerging from
the spirit of the city. Today, nearly 11,000 students benefit from the
national opportunities and international reach afforded by the quality
of SMU’s seven degree-granting schools.