A team of researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Massachusetts, will receive $1 million in federal and state grants to develop a new working alliance, called the Center for Neuroprosthetics, within the facilities of WPI's Bioengineering Institute (BEI). The center's purpose will be to advance the critical development of neuroprostheticsnext-generation prostheses that could be permanently implanted and perform most of the movements and functions of natural limbs.
The majority of the funding comes through a two-year, $860,000 grant awarded to the BEI by the U.S. Army's Military Amputee Research Program of the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC). "There is a great human need for better, more functional prosthetic devices, especially for our soldiers who have been severely injured in Iraq and Afghanistan," said W. Grant McGimpsey, PhD, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of the BEI. "So we are very pleased to receive this funding to enable our work. We are taking a comprehensive approach to this research, looking at how we can leverage our expertise at WPI to fill the gaps and advance the field."
In addition, WPI will receive a $150,000 grant from the John Adams Innovation Institute, the economic development division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), to undertake market evaluation, strategic planning, and business development activities supporting the growth of the Center, and to help stage a national neuroprosthetics conference at WPI in the third quarter of 2009."The collaborations and nexus of innovative activity created by the Center for Neuroprosthetics at WPI greatly improves conditions for growing the medical device industry in the region, throughout [Massachusetts], and beyond," said Pat Larkin, PhD, director of the MTC's John Adams Innovation Institute.
The TARTC grant, funded through appropriations supported by U.S. Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), as well as U.S. Representative James P. McGovern (D-Massachusetts), will cover three areas of prosthetics research at WPI: control-signal processing, nervous-system integration, and the tissue interface between device and body.
Ted Clancy, PhD, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at WPI, will lead the signal-processing work. His lab will study the electrical signals that control normal muscle activity and apply that knowledge to enhancing the control of prosthetic limbs. Using specialized technology and algorithms, Clancy will measure and analyze signals propagating along the forearm muscles of healthy volunteers and record the associated movements and forces of the subjects' wrists and fingers. Current prosthetic limbs often rely on remnant musculature for control. Clancy's work may be able to enhance the control of current prosthetic technology while also laying the foundation for signal processing for artificial limbs that are connected to the nervous system such that they can be controlled directly by the brain and provide to the brain sensory feedback, such as limb orientation and the temperature of surfaces.
Stephen Lambert, PhD, research associate professor with BEI, will direct basic science studies needed for eventually connecting external prosthetic devices to the nervous system. His team will try to direct the growth of neurons on artificial surfaces, such as glass, gold, or silicone, so their axons extend along channels etched in the materials. Lambert's team will try to achieve predictable neuron growth and axon myelination on various surfaces in the laboratory.
Whether they are controlled by the nervous system or remnant muscle activity, the advanced prostheses that WPI researchers envision will be osseointegrated. Through the TATRC program, the WPI team will study the tissue interface at two levels. George Pins, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering, will focus on the epidermis and study how those skin cells interact with a variety of post materials. Kristen Billiar, PhD, associate professor of biomedical engineering, will examine the dermis to analyze how it reacts to the stresses associated with osseointegration. The idea is to coax the cells of the dermis to create a stronger bond around the implanted post to provide a foundation for the epidermis, which would then form a tight, yet flexible seal around the post to prevent infection.
"Our program has components that we hope will have an immediate impact on existing prosthetics technology and will also address some of the fundamental research questions that must be answered if we are to achieve the goal of having advanced neuroprosthetics, fully integrated with bone and tissue and under the control of the nervous system," McGimpsey said.