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"Bionic Man"-type research aims to help wounded soldiers and repair spinal cord injuries, allowing sufferers to walk again.

July 24, 2011 (SDSU News Center)--The National Science Foundation has announced an $18.5 million grant to establish an Engineering Research Center (ERC) for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering based at the University of Washington with San Diego State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as research partners.


The grant will provide five years of funding, with the possibility of renewal for another five years, to develop technologies to understand and then translate the way the human brain controls movement into advanced prosthetics for amputees, sensor-electrode systems for reanimating paralyzed limbs, and home-based rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries.


As SDSU's first ever ERC grant, Dr. Kee Moon, professor of mechanical engineering, will lead SDSU's research team -10 faculty members from mechanical and electrical engineering, including professor Sam Kassegne, who directs the clean room in which much of the work will be done - to develop technologies that repair and improve human bodies by integrating robots controlled by the human brain. Other colleges on campus, such as the College of Sciences, will also participate.

Strengths of the participants


"SDSU is a partner in this prestigious award because of our faculty's research, our student's excellence at impacting industry after graduation, and San Diego’s business environment that is recognized globally for its entrepreneurial culture in biology, wireless technologies and software,” Moon said. “Together, these strengths made a compelling application.


“One of the strategic decisions made by UW was to choose universities that were themselves strong and located in areas strong in biotech,” said David Hayhurst, dean of SDSU’s College of Engineering.

SDSU is a partner in this prestigious award because of our faculty's research, our student's excellence at impacting industry after graduation and San Diego’s business environment ...


“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.”


Researchers from the three universities will work to develop new technologies for amputees, people with spinal cord injuries and people with cerebral palsy, stroke, Parkinson’s disease or age-related neurological disorders.


“The center will work on robotic devices that interact with, assist and understand the nervous system,” said director Yoky Matsuoka, a UW 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.”


Also partnering in the ERC are historically minority-serving institutions Spelman College and Morehouse College, both in Atlanta, and Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif. International partners are the University of British Columbia and the University of Tokyo.

SDSU’s role in the ERC


SDSU’s role will be to develop implantable, bio-compatible neural interfaces, or sensors, to be placed on the brain. SDSU researchers will also create the wireless interface for these devices, as well as mathematical models of brain function.


“Our ultimate goal is that we want to remotely control a robotic device through neural function, not joy sticks,” said Moon.


Additionally, SDSU was tapped because of its expertise in bringing research to market, creating real business opportunities.


“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 significant 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.”


Scientists at other partner institutions will perform mathematical analysis of the body’s neural signals; design and test implantable and wearable prosthetic devices; and build new robotic systems.


Industry Partners

• The new ERC’s 23 industry partners include:
• Microsoft Corp.
• Intel Corp.
• Lockheed Martin Corp.
• Impinj Inc.
• NeuroSky Inc.
• NeuroVista Corp.
• as well as industry organizations such as BIOCOM and venture capitalists that will help turn ideas into products and companies.

Nonacademic research institutions such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the La Jolla Bioengineering Institute, and hospitals in Seattle and San Diego will also collaborate in the research and development effort.


The majority of the funding will support undergraduate and graduate student research. All three schools will offer two new undergraduate courses, two new graduate courses and a graduate certificate program in neural engineering.

Research outcomes

Early systems developed by the ERC might involve remote or wearable devices that help guide rehabilitation exercises to remap brain signals and restore motor control. Ultimately, researchers hope to create robotic systems that are truly integrated with the body’s nervous system. They will consist of implantable prosthetics equipped with sensors that shuttle information back to wearers so they can react to their environment and control the prosthetics with their thoughts alone.


“This research is not just theoretical,” Moon said. “It is focused on building technologies that transfer to the community. At SDSU, our research will be connected to companies and entrepreneurs at the outset with the goal of building products and companies to improve all of our lives."


All NSF-funded engineering research centers are mandated to integrate research with education and community outreach. This new ERC will work with MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Programs) and school districts in Seattle and San Diego to develop neural robotics curriculum for middle school and high school students


“We’re excited to be building a pathway, starting from about middle school, for students to be exposed to research and to this topic,” Matsuoka said.


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