July 14, 2011

UW will lead $18.5 million effort to create mind-machine interface

News and Information

The National Science Foundation today 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 bodys ability for sensation and movement.”

Director Yoky Matsuoka and Deputy Director Tom Daniel.

Director Yoky Matsuoka and Deputy Director Tom Daniel.

The center launches this month and will be based in Russell Hall on the UWs 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, Parkinsons disease or age-related neurological disorders.

UW doctoral student Eric Rombokas with a prototype prosthesis built in the Neurobotics Lab.

University of Washington

UW doctoral student Eric Rombokas with a prototype prosthesis built in the Neurobotics Lab.

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 bodys neural signals; design and test implanted and wearable prosthetic devices; and build new robotic systems.

The Neurobotics Lab's prosthetic hand is a close replica of an actual human hand. Researchers are working to integrate it with the human nervous system.

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 ODonnell, the UWs dean of engineering. “We have fantastic partners and a strong leadership team to accelerate innovations and help prepare students to advance the field.”

Some of the faculty and staff affiliated with the new Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.

Some of the faculty and staff affiliated with the new Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.

“I think the really interesting development is literally where the silicon meets the collagen,” said Daniel, the centers 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.

“Were 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.

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Matsuoka is currently on sabbatical in California and can be reached at yoky@cs.washington.edu. Reporters should copy her assistant, Jennifer Maione, at jmaione@cs.washington.edu. Contact Daniel at 206-543-1659 or danielt@uw.edu.

NSF media contact is Joshua Chamot at 703-292-7730 or jchamot@nsf.gov.