Area Researchers Work to Revolutionize Prosthetics

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A revolutionary new project to develop technology that could allow humans to control prosthetic limbs with brain signals is being pursued by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco researchers in a collaboration that began in December 2010.

The Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses - not a physical center, but formed by a group of faculty from each campus - is researching technology that could serve to treat a variety of physical disabilities, including paralysis, according to Edward Chang, co-director of the center and assistant professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF. Researchers expect to bring the project to a clinical trial within a year and a half.

"We're looking directly at all the different aspects of brain-machine interfaces," Chang said. "One of our first areas is trying to understand how we can decode neural activity to control things like a robotic arm."

According to Chang, several teams around the country are trying to come up with the first viable system of interpreting human brain activity to stimulate brain-machine interaction. In 2008, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University were able to develop technology that allowed a monkey to feed itself by controlling a robotic arm with signals from its brain.

Electrode arrays attached to tissues in the brain allow neuroscientists to interpret signals and create stimulations in certain parts of the brain that could eventually result in the movement of prosthetic limbs, according to Christoph Schreiner, a researcher at the center and professor of otolaryngology at UCSF.

"If you place (electrode arrays) on the brain, you might be able to influence a small group of neurons to create a sensation, or to induce movements if you put it over the motor cortex," Schreiner said. "The goal at the end is to not only understand what's going on, but to create neurological rehabilitation strategies."

Robert Knight, co-founder of the center, professor of neuroscience and director of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at UC Berkeley, said the target audience for treatment is quadriplegics with high spinal cord injury. He said the goal is to eventually treat stroke victims and people with language disabilities.

According to Schreiner, the technology could also benefit victims of Parkinson's disease. Deep brain stimulation with electrode arrays could potentially ease the symptoms felt by those suffering from tremors and who have trouble walking.

"By stimulating some areas around the thalamus, you might overcome (the symptoms of Parkinson's)," Schreiner said. "You might create smooth movements."

The strength of UC Berkeley's engineering program and UCSF's medical program is vital to the success of the project, according to Karunesh Ganguly, a neuroscientist at the center and assistant professor of neurology at UCSF.

Chang said the center also serves as a training institution for neuroscience and engineering students, and even provides coursework for aspiring students in the fields.

"It's one of those things where at this point it's mostly at the research stage, and part of the goal of combining efforts is to have more of a clinical emphasis," Ganguly said. "We're trying to tackle problems that no one discipline can tackle very easily."


Contact Damian Ortellado at [email protected]

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