Research Spotlight: The $5.6 million man

Stock photo of a conceptual robotic hand, transparent to show circuitryLightning-fast connections between robotic limbs and the human brain may be within reach for injured soldiers and other amputees with the establishment of a multimillion-dollar research center led by SMU engineers.

Funded by a U.S. Department of Defense initiative dedicated to audacious challenges and intense time schedules, the Neurophotonics Research Center will develop two-way fiber optic communication between prosthetic limbs and peripheral nerves. This connection will be key to operating realistic robotic arms, legs and hands that not only move like the real thing, but also “feel” sensations like pressure and heat.

Successful completion of the fiber optic link will allow for sending signals seamlessly back and forth between the brain and artificial limbs, allowing amputees revolutionary freedom of movement and agility.

Partners in the Neurophotonics Research Center also envision man-to-machine applications that extend far beyond prosthetics, leading to medical breakthroughs like brain implants for the control of tremors, neuro-modulators for chronic pain management and implants for patients with spinal cord injuries.

The researchers believe their new technologies can ultimately provide the solution to the kind of injury that left actor Christopher Reeve paralyzed after a horse riding accident. “This technology has the potential to patch the spinal cord above and below a spinal injury,” said Marc Christensen, center director and electrical engineering chair in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. “Someday, we will get there.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the $5.6 million center with industry partners as part of its Centers in Integrated Photonics Engineering Research (CIPhER) project, which aims to dramatically improve the lives of the large numbers of military amputees returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently available prosthetic devices commonly rely on cables to connect them to other parts of the body for operation – for example, requiring an amputee to clench a healthy muscle in the chest to manipulate a prosthetic hand. The movement is typically deliberate, cumbersome, and far from lifelike.

The goal of the Neurophotonics Research Center is to develop a link compatible with living tissue that will connect powerful computer technologies to the human nervous system through hundreds or even thousands of sensors embedded in a single fiber. Unlike experimental electronic nerve interfaces made of metal, fiber optic technology would not be rejected or destroyed by the body’s immune system.

The center brings together researchers from SMU, Vanderbilt University, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of North Texas. Its industrial partners include Lockheed Martin (Aculight), Plexon, Texas Instruments, National Instruments and MRRA.

The research builds on the partner universities’ recent advances in light stimulation of individual nerve cells and new, extraordinarily sensitive optical sensors being developed at SMU. Volkan Otugen, SMU site director for the center and Lyle School mechanical engineering chair, has pioneered research on tiny spherical devices that sense the smallest of signals utilizing a concept known as “whispering gallery modes.” A whispering gallery is an enclosed circular or elliptical area, like that found beneath an architectural dome, in which whispers can be heard clearly on the other side of the space.

The ultimate combination of advanced optical nerve stimulation and nerve-sensing technologies will create a complete, two-way interface that does not currently exist. “It will revolutionize the field of brain interfaces,” Christensen said.

Written by Kimberly Cobb

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