UW engineering center combines medicine with robotics to help bodies heal, feel again
At the University of Washington College of Engineering, researchers are developing tools that allow patients to move prosthetic — or even paralyzed — limbs with their minds. It’s the future of neural engineering, and it’s coming sooner than you might think.
“The day Jayna Bean Doll was born, May 11, 2006, we noticed seizure-like behavior. After close supervision, her doctor confirmed the seizures and ordered a CT scan of her brain. He closed the door to our room to give us the news… we knew right away, our lives were never going to be the same…” – Jayna’s mother Sunshine Glynn, via CaringBridge
The diagnosis was hemimegalencephaly, a rare condition in which one half of the brain develops abnormally larger than the other. The seizures, a symptom of the condition, lasted minutes, consuming Jayna’s entire being. The only answer was a hemispherectomy — a procedure that would disconnect the right hemisphere of her brain — by Seattle Children’s neurosurgeon and Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) member Dr. Jeff Ojemann.
Just 28 days old, Janya was, at the time, the youngest patient in the world ever to undergo the operation. The surgery was successful, but the outlook was dim: Doctors told Jayna’s family she’d likely never walk or talk. That they’d have only a few years with her, at best.
Fast-forward a decade, and Jayna — who lives life with partial blindness and paralysis on one side of her body — is the happiest walking, talking 10-year-old you’ll ever meet. And, as a participant in the University of Washington College of Engineering’s Ability & Innovation Lab, Jayna is working with mechanical engineering students to design body-powered braces to enrich not just her own life, but the lives of others.
“With Jayna, we’ve been working on a simple, mechanical solution that’s easy to use in daily life, and we’re really excited by the future opportunities in neural engineering with our partners at the CSNE,” says assistant professor of mechanical engineering and CSNE member Kat Steele, who pioneered the Ability & Innovation Lab. “There, researchers are working hard to develop the future of brain-computer interfaces that will let an individual simply think and move these devices.”
For the uninitiated, it sounds like science fiction: humans using brain control to bring robotic limbs — or even their own paralyzed limbs — to life. For CSNE Director Rajesh Rao and CSNE Deputy Director Chet Moritz, it’s the future of neural engineering — and it’s less than a decade away.
Housed in the College of Engineering, the CSNE is a cross-disciplinary hub that brings together medicine and engineering to develop novel solutions for conditions that range from stroke to spinal cord injury. It’s an ecosystem of innovation centered on a shared mission: empowering people with disabilities through connecting brains with technology.
While the intent to move is still there for individuals who experience paralysis, there’s a missing link — maybe a damaged nerve — in the loop that carries that message from the brain to the muscle. That’s where the CSNE comes in.
Participants in the CSNE’s studies are patients who are in for an epilepsy diagnosis and have volunteered to assist during their one- to two-week hospital stay. There, CSNE researchers connect the signals measured directly from the brain to a computer translator connected to a robotic arm and, without physically lifting a finger, the participants think of controlling it. Reaching out to a loved one, grabbing a drink of water. The robotic arm moves.
“But what happens if we want to control our own paralyzed limb?” poses Moritz. “We can electrically stimulate the spinal cord below the level of the injury using an implantable device, a type of brain-computer interface (BCI).” Essentially, chips and wires that act as a pseudo nervous system and learn in real time, creating a bridge to reconnect the brain to the spinal cord below the injury.
“The goal isn’t so much to use a brain signal to control a prosthetic limb as it is to allow the brain to heal itself,” says Rao. Over time, the goal is to help brain and spinal circuits rewire around the area of injury and actually reanimate once-paralyzed limbs.
“Eventually, the device could go away because the individual has regained function,” says Moritz. “The individuals, like Jayna, who might one day benefit from what the CSNE is developing are just a wonderful, inspiring, rewarding group of people to work with. This is the kind of research that makes being at the UW so special.”