Second BRAIN grant for WVU

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Researchers at the West Virginia University Center for Neuroscience are developing a new approach to prosthetics that could offer amputees an artificial hand that feels and responds like a real hand.

The multidisciplinary team of neuroengineers and rehabilitation experts from WVU, the University of Pittsburgh, and Utah-based Ripple, LLC, is led by Robert Gaunt, Ph.D. and Michael Boninger, M.D., at the University of Pittsburgh. The team is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program to develop a fully implantable system to control a dexterous prosthetic hand that can be used at home.

The WVU team, led by Sergiy Yakovenko, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise physiology and neuroscience at the WVU School of Medicine, is tasked with developing robust algorithms to transform electrical signals recorded from sensors implanted in spared arm muscles into movement of the prosthesis. Sensors in the prosthesis will detect when the artificial hand touches an object or moves, and this information will be used to stimulate intact neural pathways to restore sensation.

“To operate the prosthesis the user will think about moving their prosthetic hand, much as if it were a real hand. Because we hope to recreate a closed-loop sensorimotor experience, the user will also feel the sensation of ‘hand’ movement and touch. It’s a full sensory experience as if it’s your own hand,” Dr. Yakovenko said.

The team believes that the key to unlocking this next step in prosthetic development is to use biomimetic approaches that add biological know-how to engineering strategies. This approach mimics the way our body operates to provide a more natural interface with the machine.

The WVU team will use models of the human muscles and sensory signals used to control movement and will integrate these models into the prosthetic control system. By the end of the 18-month first phase of the project, the team plans to have an algorithm that can function outside of laboratory conditions.

The HAPTIX team is building on more than 10 years of collaboration on neuro-mechanical research that started at the University of Alberta in the laboratory of noted neuroscientist Arthur Prochazka, Ph.D., where Yakovenko and Gaunt did their Ph.D. work.

This innovative research is made possible by an award through the BRAIN Initiative, a White House program launched to fund research for treatments of a wide variety of brain disorders. The HAPTIX program is the second BRAIN initiative award of which WVU is a part, which Yakovenko says is an impressive achievement for any university.

“WVU is an up-and-coming university in neuroscience. Receiving a second BRAIN initiative award shows that we definitely have a great team here,” Yakovenko said.   

In 2013, President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative as a large-scale effort to equip researchers with the fundamental support necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders. Four federal agencies — NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, and DARPA — committed more than $110 million to the Initiative for fiscal year 2014. Planning for the NIH component of the BRAIN initiative is guided by the long-term scientific plan, “BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision,” that details seven high-priority research areas.

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sw: 01-26-15