The National Science Foundation announced an $18.5 million grant to establish an Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering based at the University of Washington.
“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.”
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.
Partners are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and San Diego State University. Also partnering 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.
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.”
A diverse group of faculty from the UW College of Engineering, UW College of Arts and Sciences and the UW Medical Center will be involved in the new center. Among them are Chet Moritz, who works on restoring movement to paralyzed limbs; Matsuoka, whose Neurobotics Laboratory works on the human-robot interface; Thomas Daniel and Kristi Morgansen, who study animals as the basis for new flying robots; and Jeffrey Ojemann, Rajesh Rao and Eberhard Fetz, who work to detect and interpret human brain signals.
Scientists at the UW and partner institutions will work to perform mathematical analysis of the body’s neural signals; design and test implanted and wearable prosthetic devices; and build new robotic systems.
The four new engineering research centers announced this month by the NSF have an increased focus on industry participation. This center’s 23 industry partners include Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp.; smaller companies and startups such as Impinj Inc., NeuroSky Inc. and NeuroVista Corp.; as well as industry organizations and venture capitalists that will help turn ideas into products and companies.
Collaborators also include nonacademic research institutions such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science and the La Jolla Bioengineering Institute, and hospitals in Seattle and San Diego.
“The Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering will bring together university and industry researchers to establish Seattle as an education, research and commercial hub for ‘neurobotics,’” said Matt O’Donnell, the UW’s dean of engineering. “We have fantastic partners and a strong leadership team to accelerate innovations and help prepare students to advance the field.”
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.
“I think the really interesting development is literally where the silicon meets the collagen,” said Daniel, the center’s deputy director and a UW biology professor. “It remains an open challenge, one of the current problems in neural engineering.”
The other deputy directors are Kee Moon at SDSU and Joel Voldman at MIT.
All three schools will offer two new undergraduate courses, two new graduate courses and a graduate certificate program in neural engineering. The UW also will offer an interdisciplinary dual undergraduate degree in neuroscience and engineering, and an undergraduate minor in neural engineering.
As with all NSF-funded engineering research centers, this one has a mission to integrate research with education and community outreach. The center will work with school districts in Seattle and San Diego to develop neural robotics curriculum for middle school and high school students. It also will reach out to women, underrepresented minorities and people with disabilities.
“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.
The UW is currently home to another major NSF-funded center, the Center on Materials & Devices for Information Technology Research, established in 2002 through a similar NSF program for science research.