An $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation will fund a new Engineering Research Centre for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering on the University of Washington campus — a place where researchers will figure out new ways for the human nervous system to work in conjunction with robotics and other mechanical devices.
The initiative will build on the work of researchers including Yoky Matsuoka, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering who will serve as the center’s director.
“The center will work on robotic devices that interact with, assist and understand the nervous system,” Matsuoka said in a UW News article. “It will combine advances in robotics, neuroscience, electromechanical devices and computer science to restore or augment the body’s ability for sensation and movement.”
The center launches this month and will be based in Russell Hall on the UW’s Seattle campus. The grant is for five years of funding, with the possibility of renewal for another five years.
Researchers will develop new technologies for amputees, people with spinal cord injuries and people 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,” Matsuoka said. “Our center will use sensory and neural feedback to give these devices much more flexibility and control.”
The majority of the funding will support undergraduate and graduate student research. Early systems might involve remote or wearable devices that help guide rehabilitation exercises to remap brain signals and restore motor control.
Ultimately, 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.